Friday Editor’s Pick: Caught (1949)

by on August 14, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Aug 19 at 3:25, 7:05 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Double Feature with Clash by Night (1952)


Film Forum’s Robert Ryan retrospective continues with an ultra-rare restoration screening of Max Ophuls’ fascinating, noir-tinged melodrama Caught. Ryan headlines as an icy, borderline psychotic millionaire (an a-clef characterization of Howard Hughes). The role of his young wife went to Barbara “Stupid, Stupid, Stupid” Bel Geddes (the quote comes from her neurotic but all-too-human turn in Vertigo) who here, for once, gets to play the ingenue — but oh, at what a price.


Don’t forget to check out Imogen Smith’s profile on Ryan for Alt Screen.


Michael Sragow for the Baltimore Sun:

In many an erotic film noir, the central figure is the femme fatale — the shady bombshell who detonates all the greed and lust that would otherwise lie dormant in the morally ambiguous hero. In the bracing and original Caught, from 1949, director Ophuls reverses the dynamics.


Barbara Bel Geddes is wrenchingly confused as a good-hearted but upwardly mobile young heroine — a department-store model and charm-school graduate — who makes the mistake of marrying a millionaire. This Prince Charmless, played by Ryan, reduces everyone, including his wife, to a stooge or a trophy. Call Ryan’s magnate the “homme fatal.” His craggy “masculine” strength is terrifying because it’s divorced from love, tenderness or mercy. James Mason is reliably fervid as the virtuous doctor who tries to save Bel Geddes, and Curt Bois skulks expertly as the villain’s right-hand mouse — who roars, just once. Ryan, though, is staggering. His whole rangy body is a physicalized snarl.



Anthony Lane for the New Yorker:

Like all melancholics, Ophuls preferred the butt end of imperial power to the full flare; when he moved to the United States, to a new empire at once more ambitious and more enlightened than the Austro-Hungarian, he retained his taste for the glittering shadows, and for a climate of enervated hope. Look at Caught, his 1949 tale of a dreamy girl (Barbara Bel Geddes) who marries a monster (Robert Ryan, in a barely concealed portrait of Howard Hughes), only to run away and catch the eye of a harassed doctor (James Mason). By now, the orchestras and flower sellers of old Vienna have long vanished, to make way for the heroine’s cheap New York apartment, yet the snow and showers that fell in Liebelei and Letter from an Unknown Woman somehow linger in the raindrops that cling, like diamond dust, to the heavy black coat of Ryan when he comes to call.


Caught, and The Reckless Moment are now considered masterworks, unprecedented compactings of amour fou and film noir. Hollywood would have to wait twenty-five years or so, for men like Robert Altman, before it could rediscover the visual freedom that was imported by Ophuls; yet he himself, an outsider and a novice, had peered into the shrines of American marriage and family and come upon people—women, mostly—who were never as free as they had dreamed. In retrospect, such a combination of radical insight and Old World elegance was probably just too much for Ophuls’s hosts. As the doctor in Caught says, admonishing the millionaire’s wife who works secretly in his surgery, “You’re so fancy you’re scaring people away.”


Time Out (London):

A key American melodrama: draw a line between Citizen Kane and Written on the Wind, and you’ll find Ophuls’ noir classic at the heady mid-point. A car-hop Cinderella (Bel Geddes) chases a fashion-plate, charm-school dream; a childishly megalomaniac millionaire (Ryan) marries her to spite his analyst. Ophuls holds back his camera to frame the sour domestic nightmare, but gloriously equates motion with emotion when Bel Geddes takes solace with James Mason’s virtuous doctor. The alluring web of hearts and dollars has rarely looked so deadly, and only the studio spared us the sight of the kill.


David Thomson in Have You Seen…?:

Caught is a treat. Somehow all the mixed motives have conspired to make a love story noir in which the rawness of the material makes a rich contrast with the sophistication and warmth in Ophuls’s way of looking at people. Arthur Laurents is on record as saying that he couldn’t see what the fuss was about where Ophuls was concerned. In which case he should look more closely at the rapturous passage of the film where Leonora joins the Quinada practice – look at the spaces, the light, the movement of the camera (there is a dance sequence that is ravishing) and the overall way in which mason (who loved Ophuls) begins to convey to Leonora that she is in another world. Photographed by Lee Garmes, Caught has passages where the cinematic density lifts the whole project up.



Charles Taylor for Salon:

Perched halfway between a film noir and a woman’s picture, Caught features at its center Robert Ryan’s frightening portrait of Smith Ohlrig, a psychotic millionaire who marries a naive young girl (Barbara Bel Geddes) for the pleasure of destroying her. Hughes in 1949 had not acquired the reputation for full-blown eccentricity that came with his mysterious final years. But Robert Ryan’s rangy build is a visual echo of Hughes’, and Smith Ohlrig’s impulsive and determined cruelty merges with the tales of Hughes’ crazy need for control that are so familiar today.


Within its modest confines, it’s a coruscating portrait of American fantasies and the confines of class. Visually (the movie was shot by Lee Garmes) Caught is a succession of private traps. The sets are either cramped and dingy, like Leonora’s apartment and the doctor’s offices where she works, or, like Ohlrig’s mansion, so cavernous they seem unable to sustain human life. Still, the movie chooses the fetid air of the tenements where Leonora and her doctor work, over the stultified air of Ohlrig’s mansion.


For Ophuls it’s an easy, unsentimental choice. He escaped the clutches of a crazy millionaire, too. He appears to have caught a whiff of genuine madness during his time with Hughes. This bitter little movie was Ophuls’ way of making sure he never forgot it.


Gary Carey for Film Comment (Summer 1971) also notes the Howard Hughes significance:

Caught has been called the most American of Max Ophuls’ American films because the spine of its plot-the Cinderella marriage of a poor girl to a multi-millionaire tycoon- touches upon an ever-popular American folk myth, played out against a contemporary New York setting. In outline, Caught may not seem very promising material, but Ophuls frequently worked with even more novelettish material; and the script, as developed by Arthur Laurents, plays into the director’s major preoccupation. (It happens to be one of Laurents’ major preoccupations, also.) Asking himself “What are Ophuls’ subjects?” Richard Roud answers (in his monograph, Max Ophuls: An Index), “The simple answer is: women in love. Most often, women who are unhappily in love or to whom love brings misfortune of one kind or another.”


If Ophuls’ experience with Hughes is wrapped up in the way in which he handles Ohlrig- as I believe it was- then this experience is central to the film’s successes. It is those scenes in which Ohlrig appears (either physically or as an almost palpable eminence grise) which break almost brutally through the cellophane kitsch of the rest of the story, gain an independent life, and make caught easily the most fascinating and complex of Ophuls’ American films. Here there is an aggressiveness about Ophuls’ involvement with the story not only missing from his other American films but antipodal to the faded, nostalgic moral sensibility of his later French work.



Jake Hinkson for his blog The Night Editor:

I guess Max Ophüls was just too big for film noir. He was the premier artist of lushly romantic period pieces, and those are the films for which he is remembered today. Most people don’t even realize that in 1949 he made two film noirs back to back, nor do they realize that these two films represent exactly half of his American output. Wedged between Letter From An Unknown Woman in 1948 and La Ronde in 1950, these two B-movies have been largely overlooked by critics in favor of Ophüls’ more celebrated work. The irony of this neglect is that The Reckless Moment and Caught are both brilliant film noirs. Each feature Ophüls’ celebrated mise-en-scène and camera work, and each feature strong female protagonists. Of the two films, The Reckless Moment is tighter and more controlled, but Caught darker and deeper… The movie finds a way to resolve its showdown, but the last few minutes of the movie are shocking. In today’s Hollywood, a movie studio would never allow a film to have such an ending. I can’t image what people must have thought in 1949.


This was much tinkering on the film—especially the ending—by the studio and the censors, but film that emerged is a fascinating piece of work. Ophüls was known as one the great “women’s directors”, but a better way to phrase, really, would be that he was one of the first feminist directors. Leonora’s quest to find a husband is a set up for her brutal awakening. What does she want? Why does she want it? She will have to confront her own underlying assumptions about marriage and motherhood before the movie is over.


The blog The Chances We Take:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” wrote Jane Austen. Conversely, and far less romantically, a prospective wife must be in want of a man in possession of a good fortune. This principle presides over the entirety of Max Ophuls’ ink-black melodrama Caught, in which a young woman (Barbara Bel Geddes) marries master-of-his-domain Smith Ohlrich (Robert Ryan), and gets far more than she can handle. American-born directors might have trouble storming the democratic-capitalist castle so brazenly. Ophuls jumps right in with Ms Eames (Bel Geddes) changing her name to Leonora and attending a finishing school; these first moments indicate the final result of a long debate over whether or not to play the long con, although blink and you may miss them. Soon “Leonora” is sashaying through expensive department stores modeling fur coats and rubbing elbows with society’s best, smile perpetually plastered across her face. We can see right through her from the start, but who else are we to sympathize with? Ohlrich is no fool – the only reason he marries her, or the only reason Ophuls gives us, is to prove to his psychiatrist that he can. If you came to the drive-in for some popcorn and light necking, your stomach may be beginning to turn.


There’s not even the trace of romance to be found in Caught – a honeymoon is alluded to but never seen. That notion went out the door in the first frame, hovering over the finishing school brochure, guaranteeing students they would bag Prince Charming. After that, the camera prances from tracking shot to tracking shot through the beautiful mansion, around the landscaped pool, through the finest luxuries money can buy. The happy ending doesn’t feel tacked on or disingenuous – it’s a fitting piece of gallows humor. Leonora Eames gets everything she could have possibly dreamed of, but her dreams didn’t involve any lofty ideals. Are the objects of her basest desires even worth having?



Manohla Dargis on Ryan’s performance in the Times:

Though based on a novel, the movie turned into a veiled story of Howard Hughes because, as its screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, claimed in his memoir, Ophuls hated Hughes. “Make him an idiot,” Ophuls demanded of Laurents. “Kill him off.” While melodramatic, the movie is a fascinating dark look at desire and power as is Ryan’s sexually charged take on a man whose savagery wounds himself as much as everyone else.


Terrence Rafferty, also for the Times:

What makes Caught one of the most interesting Hollywood movies of its unusually interesting time is, as in Letter From an Unknown Woman, the performance of the actor cast in the villain’s role. It’s possible that no screen actor has ever been better than Mr. Ryan at portraying bad men tormented by their badness. He shows us, with surprising delicacy, the pure panic that is sometimes the secret source of cruelty.


Mark Asch on “the greatest actor in the history of cinema,” for L Mag:

Aside from being the end result of an infamous Hollywood backstory, the character “Smith Ohlrig” is also grist for a terrific Robert Ryan performance: Ryan found seemingly endless shades of insecurity, fear, and melancholy within even the most menacing characters, and as the Hughes stand-in he’s seething, indeterminately sexualized, and control-freaky. He’s a perfect Hughes — virile and dashing at first, until you realize just how weird and obsessive he is.


The movie’s pretty damn great, too: Barbara Bel Geddes plays a shopgirl who enters into what she thinks is a fairy-tale marriage with Ohlring; the movie is a tabloid expose, a cautionary tale to a nation beginning to rediscover the joys of wealth and fame, and a continental spin on noir style. This being an Ophuls movie, his focus and sympathy is squarely on the woman negotiating a malignant society, but spare a minute to note how supporting player Ryan ends up looming over the whole thing.



Nicholas Christopher in Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City:

Caught is in a class by itself. Ophuls was famous for his virtuoso direction and the painterly approach he brought to the camera. His rendering of objects – like so many still-lifes frozen together in the fore- and backgrounds of his frame – was textured in a baroque, minutely detailed manner. In Caught, the most baroque of all his films, he is stylized without being flash. Much of the film is shot in a millionaire’s mansion that rivals (and was reputedly modeled after) the pleasure palace Xanadu that Orson Welles created in Citizen Kane. The house, like Kane’s, is filled with cavernous rooms and walk-in fireplaces, gigantic doorways and dizzying stairwells.


“Luxury” is the operative word in Caught, both as a catch-all for the physical pleasures it describes and as a state of mind – and existential condition. Ohlrig enforces an idleness upon Leonora that devolves into imprisonment; then, even while chastising her for accepting this condition, he continually reminds her that it is a “luxury.” The title of the film, too, works on a multiplicity of levels, from describing the innocent, and annoying passive, young woman caught in a malevolent relationship, to a whole class of people thrashing in the web of their materialism, to the tycoon himself caught in a net of rage and self-loathing. It is a film in which the ordure smeared in the wake of money is always apparent, tainting everyone from Ohlrig and Leonora to the yes-men and hangers-on he keeps around (primarily, it seems, to absorb his abuse at all hours) and evince little shame in their roles as parasites. I would be surprised to find a crueller American film ever made about marriage – a problematic subject to begin with in film noir, where the nuclear family is distinctly absent, or actively attacked as an institution. Caught begins as an exploration of money and its ramifications in human affairs and turns out to be about insanity.


And despite the Ryan focus, we cannot leave out James Mason’s poem about Ophuls. Quoted here by Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune:

A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.


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