The Lost Moment is a 1947 thriller in the tradition of Rebecca and the only film directed by actor Martin Gabel. Robert Cummings (Sleep, My Love) stars as Lewis Venable, an energetic American publisher in search of the lost love letters of an early 19th century poet. Under a false name, Lewis rents a room in a mansion from Juliana Borderau (Agnes Moorehead, TV’s Bewitched), a former lover of the dead writer. Overseeing the eerie mansion is Juliana’s near-psychotic niece, Tina (Susan Hayward, Where Love Has Gone), who mistrusts the publisher from the very onset. It soon becomes clear to Lewis that the mansion harbors horrible secrets, however, he intends to collect the lost letters at any cost. Art director Alexander Golitzen (Touch of Evil) and set decorators Russell A. Gausman (Shadow of a Doubt) and Ken Swartz (The Affair of Susan) make great use of the haunting Venetian mansion. The incredible makeup used to make Agnes Moorehead appear 105-years-old created quite a stir in 1947, as it became the subject of many magazine articles. The Lost Moment was shot in glorious black-and-white by Hal Mohr (The Wild One) from an adapted screenplay by Leonardo Bercovici (Portrait of Jennie, The Bishop’s Wife), and based on the Henry James’ best-selling novel "The Aspern Papers."
A few fine films have been adapted from the works of the esteemed novelist Henry James, such as 'The Heiress,' 'The Innocents' (based on the classic horror story 'The Turn of the Screw'), and 'The Wings of the Dove.' 'The Lost Moment,' an attempt to turn the author's highly regarded novella, 'The Aspern Papers,' into a slick tale of romantic suspense, isn't one of them. A hodgepodge of 'Rebecca' and 'Great Expectations,' with a few Gothic thrills thrown in for good measure, this lumbering yarn showcases a gallery of eccentrics as it examines greed, mental illness, and obsession in a wildly melodramatic manner.
James' marvelously descriptive, dense prose can prove difficult to shape into a driving, tight narrative, and screenwriter Leonardo Bercovici ('The Bishop's Wife') takes too many liberties in his valiant attempt to make 'The Aspern Papers' palatable to mainstream audiences of the late 1940s. Though the basic kernels of James' novella remain, the treatment transforms a work of serious literature (inspired by a true story) into a potboiler. The scenery-chewing antics of a young Susan Hayward don't help the cause, nor does the bland performance of leading man Robert Cummings. (Reportedly, the outspoken Hayward never thought much of the film, calling it "disastrous" and "as miserable a failure as you've ever seen." Her biographer, Beverly Linet, quotes the actress as saying, "Their name for it may have been 'The Lost Moment,' but after I saw it I called it 'The Lost Hour and a Half.'")
Based on the letters Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to Mary Shelley's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who supposedly cherished them until she passed away, 'The Lost Moment' chronicles the efforts of an unscrupulous publisher (Cummings) to find the closely guarded correspondence between 19th century poet Jeffrey Ashton, who long ago disappeared under questionable circumstances, and Juliana Bordereau (Agnes Moorehead), with whom he shared a passionate relationship. Any of Ashton's artifacts are highly coveted, but these beautifully composed letters are the Holy Grail of the literary world. Using an assumed name, Lewis Venable, the publisher travels to Venice, where he ingratiates himself into the Bordereau household, which is ferociously protected by Juliana's stern, suspicious niece, Tina (Hayward). The ornate mansion is a veritable haunted house, filled with cobwebs galore, gloomy rooms, and even a pesky bat. Juliana, now a gruff, elderly dowager of 105, gradually warms to Lewis and begins to share isolated details about her tempestuous affair with the dashing poet.
Yet just as he begins to crack Juliana's shell, Lewis notices bizarre changes in Tina's personality. The austere young woman often lets her hair down and seems to fancy herself as Juliana in her prime. She wears Juliana's ornate jeweled ring, calls Lewis "Jeffrey," and treats him as her lover. As Juliana moves closer to divulging the location of the letters and a few shocking secrets, Tina tightens her grip on her delusion, and Lewis finds himself trapped in a fierce battle of wits that rapidly spirals out of control.
Hayward's histrionics lend her schizophrenic character a cartoon quality that quashes any real suspense, while Cummings' deadpan portrayal lacks the intensity and sense of urgency so necessary to the film's success. As the crotchety Juliana, an unrecognizable Moorehead, hidden under layers of makeup and prosthetics, sits in a rocker, eerily foreshadowing the shocking appearance of a decomposed Mrs. Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' 13 years later. She also conjures up impressions of the bitter, disturbed, and oh-so-reclusive Miss Haversham from 'Great Expectations' (released the year before), just as Tina looks and acts like a younger version of the dour Mrs. Danvers in 'Rebecca.'
Director Martin Gabel, in his first and only feature, tries to inject some atmosphere into the proceedings, but his efforts never rise above the mundane, and his sense of pacing leaves much to be desired. He also fails to rein in the hyper-dramatic Hayward, whose performance lacks the nuance and naturalness that would distinguish her acclaimed portrayals of the 1950s. The film's few jolts may have been effective at the time of the movie's release, but are tame by today's elevated standards, and the fiery climax (which isn't in the novella) comes out of nowhere and ends almost as quickly as it begins.
'The Lost Moment' wins points for trying to tackle a difficult literary work, but its shoddy execution keeps this thriller mired in mediocrity. Several other adaptations of 'The Aspern Papers' would follow over the years, and surely one of them must eclipse this middling effort, of which James himself would certainly not approve.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Lost Moment' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The source material used for the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Olive Films could benefit from some much-needed clean-up, but the overall image is quite pleasing. Well-balanced contrast and good clarity, coupled with a natural grain structure that maintains the film-like feel, distinguishes this solid rendering, which remains fairly consistent throughout the 89-minute running time. Black levels are rich and deep, excellent gray scale variance brings out details in background elements, and fine shadow delineation enhances depth. Crush and noise are absent, and no noticeable digital doctoring could be detected.
Director Martin Gabel employs plenty of close-ups, and all of them are exquisitely composed and exhibit marvelous levels of detail. The contrast of Hayward's fresh, creamy complexion with the leathery wrinkles that cover Moorehead's hands are striking, and Cummings' boyish intensity comes across well, too. Unfortunately, the transfer's biggest minus is its banged-up print, which features plenty of nicks, scratches, vertical lines, and blotches. Such imperfections can't help but steer one's attention away from the story and detract from the viewing experience. And that's a shame, because otherwise 'The Lost Moment' looks quite good in high definition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track sounds a little tinny at times, especially whenever any solo piano is played, but for the most part, the audio is clear, relatively clean, and robust. Despite the movie's advanced age, only a few errant imperfections afflict the track, and accents like the screech of a bat and an isolated scream are crisp and distinct. The foreboding music score fills the room well, and a decent dynamic scale nicely handles all the highs and lows, only allowing faint hints of distortion now and then. Dialogue is always properly prioritized and easy to comprehend, and subtle atmospherics, such as the crackling embers of a fire, add essential flavor to the dour proceedings. Though a full restoration hasn't been performed on this track, enough clean-up has been done to make the listening experience pleasant and seamless.
There are no supplements whatsoever on this disc, not even a trailer.
Henry James probably wouldn't endorse 'The Lost Moment,' and who could blame him? This wildly fanciful adaptation of 'The Aspern Papers' is little more than a standard Hollywood melodrama, peppered with some cheap thrills and overwrought performances. Director Martin Gabel creates an eerie atmosphere of foreboding, but his methodical treatment of the story often tries our patience. The usually adept Susan Hayward often seems as confused as her schizophrenic character, and she can't generate much heat with the bland Robert Cummings. Once again, Olive Films' Blu-ray presentation is struck from a print that could use some restorative work, but if you can get past the marks and scratches, the picture and sound make the grade. Unfortunately, the lack of any supplements drags down the disc's final score. Fans of James may not want to see the author's work bastardized, but aficionados of Hayward, Cummings, and Agnes Moorehead just might want to add this curio to their respective collections.