The Trouble with Money (or, as the Dutch title would have it, A Comedy About Money) is perhaps my favorite Ophuls film, and one of the richest of his films precisely because it is thematically uncharacteristic. Ophuls' only Dutch film is concerned mainly with systems of exchange and the moral taint they leave on those who participate in them.
Themes of performance and deception in money matters become the heart of the film, but this is not an exploration of the means necessary to avoid poverty (though at times we get glimpses of this). Instead, the most frequent and serious deceits come from those who are successful with money. The performance of deception by the moneyed classes is Ophuls' focus, though it's hard to tell if they deceive because they have money or if they deceive in order to achieve their position. The film explores the problems of the mechanisms of exchange by asserting that money itself is inextricably tied with deceit.
The film is introduced by a ringleader in heavy makeup, shown in a traveling shot in which the ringleader travels with the camera against a static background. This artificiality - along with meta-presentational song that serves as a preface - clues us in to the film's themes of performance, class, money, and morals. The first scene in the film proper confirms what the song only references: a man walks along a pier, trying to sell his dog to a wealthy couple on a boat. He haggles with the couple, and brings the dog aboard, making them promise to take good care of him, and explaining that he doesn't want to sell the dog but he does need the money. The man then goes safely away and whistles, signalling the dog to run away and back to his original owner. The scam seems to be one he's repeated, not just because it's executed so fluidly, but also because the security men who call the police mention that these victims are only the latest.
The man relies on his brother-in-law Brand, an upstanding, moralistic bank runner, to keep him away from trouble (even the police know that Brand is above suspicion). But when Brand loses 50,000 pounds he's charged with delivering to another bank, he is accused of embezzlement. Acquitted, he's nonetheless fired by his bank, which can't afford the damage to its reputation. In the world of money, impression is more important than reality.
Unable to find work, he attempts suicide but is saved by an offer he can't refuse: to run a company that develops housing for the poor. He is offered the job - far above his previous station - because all assume that Brand has hidden the 50,000 pounds and has it at his disposal. This, according to his new boss Mr. Moorman, constitutes "credit," which will allow the debt-ridden company to take on new investments. As Moorman explains, by denying that he has any money to offer, financial partners will assume he does in fact have the money; on this basis they will invest in the project.
This notion of credit, in which financial knowledge is predicated on guesses about unknown information, depends on the abstraction of credit into 'money' (i.e., into a medium of exchange). Ophuls criticizes this abstraction at a moral level, because 'credit' then becomes another opportunity for misrepresentation to further one's financial benefit. Credit is based on confidence - as in: 'confidence man.' It's also important to note that the confidence instilled in Brand is based on the assumption that he is an embezzling thief. Ophuls implicates the system of money exchange as morally tainted, and confirms this with the final song from the ringmaster who introduced out story. [I've left out much of the plot, by the way.]
The rich cinematography is less self-consciously poetic than most of his work, but this is to the film's benefit. Even the most dramatic shots fit easily in the narrative without falling prey to an overt romanticism. Narrative structure and juxtaposition makes Ophuls' moral arguments points deftly: on either side of Brand's nightmare-montage, we hear comments about the worries of money and how they affect sleep; the dream itself is about the affects of, rather than the cause of, his worries. The Trouble with Money may currently be seen as a 'minor' Ophuls due to its rarity, but it is anything but. instead, it is one of Ophuls' major statements, an examination of the way participation in a system of exchange is both dehumanizing and de-moralizing. A chance to see this fine film is not to be missed.