"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 26, 2012

Classic Film: "Caught" (1949) by Ophuls

Caught (1949) is one of the two noir films Ophuls made in the U.S. and it is a concise, tense and mean little film, a criticism of  capitalism run wild.

Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes in her best performance), a poor model, dreams of romance, pouring over fashion magazines with mink coats and waiting for her Prince Charming. She even gets a feminine social education at charm school ("college and finishing school combined"). Then she happens to meet cynical control-freak millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) - based on Howard Hughes, it is rumored - who marries her as a kind of joke, just to spite his psychoanalyst and to show her he controls her destiny. As a result, Leonora finds herself another piece of opulence stuffed in Ryan's Long Island mansion. On top of that, her husband has a psychotic streak and his manservant, Curt (Franzi Kartos) is almost menacing in his obsequiousness to his master.

To get away, Leonora trades richess for New York's East Side and lands a grind-house job as receptionist for struggling slum pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason). Although briefly returning to Ryan by his promises of change, Leonora is determined to stay in charge of her own destiny. During a dance in a chock-full cafe where they keep stepping on each other's toes, Larry proposes to her. But she is pregnant with Ohlrig's child and once more returns to her husband who proves more abusive than ever. He wants his “possession” back, even calling her his "employee." Extreme capitalism cheapens human feelings. The very rich think their money buys everything, but although it goes far, Ophuls shows there is a limit to what money can do. Even pimp lackey Curt walks out in disgust. Leonora is saved from her Long Island prison by Larry, as she has a miscarriage brought on by Ohlig's violence. In the back of the ambulance they reaffirm their love.

The film's title "Caught" not only refers to the marriage trap Leonora walked into, but more broadly to the wrong ideas that entrapped her: the materialistic view that money would be the root of all happiness. Unfortunately, as the world is, too many people are "caught..."

P.S. Ophuls' second noir, The Reckless Moment, seemed to be more pedestrian to me, although it features a steely Joan Bennet and again James Mason, and like Caught, plays with viewer expectations.