Max Ophüls, 1949
Starring: James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan
A young girl is convinced by her roommate that the only way to land her dream man is to go to charm school. She scrimps and saves, eventually graduating and changing her name to Leonora. She becomes a department store model and has a chance meeting with millionaire Smith Ohlrig, a cold, controlling, and neurotic man. When his psychoanalyst confronts him about his intimacy issues, he marries Leonora almost as a challenge. Things quickly turn abusive — they never spend time alone together and Leonora becomes an essential prisoner in their opulent New York mansion. She is kept awake at all hours, not allowed to sleep or relax, and is expected to play hostess at all times. After Smith becomes more abusive, she leaves him and finds a job as a reception in a doctor’s office with strictly blue collar clientele. She falls in love with the kind, handsome doctor, but becomes pregnant after a brief reunion with Smith. Leonora wants to be with the doctor, but Smith uses the pregnancy to control and imprison her once more…
Based on Libbie Block’s novel Wild Calendar (a much better title, in my opinion), Caught is a particularly hard look at love, marriage, and the American dream. It fits together as a pair with Ophüls’ follow up and his other American romance-noir, The Reckless Moment. Both films cynically examine American domestic life, as well as issues of class and definitions of success. While neither can really be called a straightforward noir, Ophüls subtly blends romantic melodrama, domestic thriller, and film noir for two unique films worthy of far more attention than they’ve received.
Ophüls seems to suggest that the American dream for women is a version of the fairy tale romance where a princess marries a prince. In this case, Leonora becomes the “princess” by going to charm school, learning how to dress properly and have perfect manners, and changing her name to something more elegant. She marries a wealthy man, not because she loves him, but because he fits into her dream concept. This makes it difficult to sympathize with her, mainly because it’s easy to see how she willing creates her own self-deception and prison. Barbara Bel Geddes (Vertigo, Panic in the Streets) both succeeds and fails in the role. She is ordinary-looking enough that she’s more effective than someone more glamorous or assertive would have been, but lacks the subtlety or complexity to really pull off Leonora’s character and has too much of a good-girl-next-door vibe throughout the film.
There is little to enjoy about the opening — Smith Ohlrig is cold and controlling, while Leonora is essentially a gold-digger putting on airs. She is an odd reversal of the femme fatale, while Smith is something of the homme fatale, a seductive, but sexually problematic male character bent on the destruction and control of those around them. Regular noir villain or toughie Robert Ryan (The Set-Up, The Racket) is fairly two-dimensional as Smith, though he is surprisingly charismatic in such a flat role. Smith was based on mogul Howard Hughes and excellently captures Hughes’ reputation for manipulation and control, as well as his issues with obsessive compulsiveness and paranoia.
The film livens up with the arrival of James Mason’s Dr. Quinada. Mason is wonderful in his first role in a U.S. film, though I would probably enjoy him in anything. He plays against type here — he was primarily cast as villains and bad guys before this -- but is utterly believable. If you’re a Mason fan, you owe it to yourself to check out both Caught and The Reckless Moment, where he takes the male starring lead and delivers excellent, albeit very different performances.
While the film’s ending is often criticized as being rushed or weak, it’s a nasty piece of commentary about how children often hold loveless, abusive marriages together and suggests that Leonora is much better off delivering a stillbirth that permanently frees her from Smith. The film fails to wrap up the fact that she and Smith are not yet divorced, but somewhat subversively, the ending shows that this isn’t necessary for she and Quinada to be together. The fact that he’s willing to take her as she is — divorced, a near murderess (she believes she killed Smith, though he survives a psychologically induced heart attack), with a lost child, and socially ruined — is also remarkable.
In addition to the film’s noir-like subject matter — a doomed marriage, a woman on the run, and dramatically changing gender roles — there are some wonderful noir visuals. There’s an excellent sense of claustrophobia heightened by the sets and cinematography. Smith’s prison-like mansion echoes those seen in Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, and many other female-centered films noir. Of course there’s also expert direction, as Ophüls is undeniably a master. Though his two American films noir are subtle, they are both masterful.
Though it’s not yet available on DVD for region 1, Caught has fortunately been restored for Blu-ray and will finally be released this July. You can pre-order it on Amazon. It comes highly recommended, particularly for fans of James Mason and anyone who likes examinations of gender roles and romantic social structures.