Caught (1949)

Caught (1949) is a film noir melodrama from Max Ophüls starring Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan and James Mason, laying bare the perils of middle class marriage and the bullying and controlling which waits any eager young bride, keen to live the fantasy life which the magazines of the time were selling.

Caught is a film which appears more vicious the closer we look at it. 

To kick off, we have some young women who are planning to live their lives through catalogues, an excellent introduction to the mating game as America enters the 1950s.

It is stressed over and over again, in fact. Young model Maude, who changes her name to a more charming 'Leonora', played by Barbara Bel Geddes is seen with her friend and flatmate Dorothy (played by Natalie Shafer) constructing the fantasy life she shall lead via the pages of the many magazines and lifestyle publications that occupy their evenings in their rather downbeat and crummy digs.

Barbara Bel Geddes in Caught (1949)

Their workplace is similarly the same in tone. Leonora airily exhibits herself and the expensive clothes her employers sell, making light of the whole thing, an attitude which is not suited to the serious, upper middle class, stuck up, stooping, stiff-necked world that is mid-twentieth century marriage moeurs.

Women for sale — Barbara Bel Geddes in romantic film noir drama
Caught (1949)

Worse still, in this plush and exorbitant department store in which Leonora as a walking display item, there appears to be a system whereby the girls are pimped out to the parties of the super-wealthy, which she cleverly and most sensibly realises is a dangerous game indeed.

Caught in a trap —  charm School for young women in Caught (1949)

This however does set up the melodramatic dialogue which sets up Caught — while marriage is a deal of sorts between not just a man and woman, but between sets of values, it is also a trade-off between money and love, and everyone would be advised to know which of the two one is marrying for.

Debutante date nite at the docks in Caught (1949)
Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan

Leonora's issue is that despite being a sensible young woman who can see through this system — we see this by the fun way she annoys her superiors at work by belittling the system and suggestively and playfully showing that in the case of a fur coat that it is not really the coat that is for sale — but the woman's body beneath it that is for sale. Ha ha! She nails it.

Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan
Caught (1949)

It's the most light hearted and sexy moment of the film, when Barbara Bel Geddes shows herself off to the discomfort of the properly-mannered and stuck up world of the store where she works. And yet she is a character of imperfection, because much as she feels at odds with this sexual circus around her, she is still determined enough to marry as best she can, by attending a charm school. Max Ophüls shows it!

Robert Ryan — psychopath; Art Smith — psychoanalyst
Caught (1949)

Similarly the charm school scenes are rich with suggestion. Here young women are corralled into behaviours and manners of speaking initially alien to them, in order to create a veneer in one sense — although the more sinister implication that a whole society is being moulded here, and around the behaviours, looks and correct placement of women.

Abandoned wife in Caught (1949)
Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan

There is of course no such facility for men, and rather than protecting women from the dating game and the obvious dangers and potential hurts of sex and marriage, what the charm school does is create insecurity. 

Abandoned wife in Caught (1949)
Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan

This is ironically and dreadfully what Leonora means when she says she is going to educate and better herself. It is the academy of wifelets she chooses, and although her training may have not come to much she does qualify and against her better judgment accepts an invitation to a super-rich party where her chances of happiness are — she knows — low.

Humiliation at home in Caught (1949)
Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan

It's at this party, which is supposed to be on board a yacht that we never board, that she meets the interestingly named Smith Ohlirg, the psychotic and bullying megalomaniac of the piece, played by classic film noir favourite Robert Ryan.

Waiting on the seedy dock next to a crummy bait and tackle joint in her best dress, Leonora knows again that this is all a big mistake. Leonora's attitude in fact is what makes this film noir tick, and makes much of romantic film noir tick at all in — she is smart enough to know that the whole dating set-up is a con, in order to trap and capture her. But she is not wise enough to leave it well alone.

A weak heart —  Robert Ryan in Caught (1949)

After a rather boring date with Ohlrig, which involves waiting in his car in the dark while he concludes a business deal, she returns to his mansion and then bows out, asking to be driven back home. Perhaps these are her morals at work, and perhaps these are the feelers she has for the noirish doom that awaits her in this relationship — perhaps even this is something she learned at the charm school.

Marriage follows however, and oddly, it seems that this marriage comes about not because she wants it, not because she has any say in that matter, and not in fact that she is even proposed to. The marriage appears to come about simply because Robert Ryan's character seeks to vex his psychiatrist — played by Art Smith.

James Mason in Caught (1949)

It is a strange beginning to the marriage but it does suggest the awfulness of it before we have even begun. And Ohlrig, her industrialist husband is a raging psychopath, seeking to destroy everybody he cannot own outright, with megalomaniac visions and a crazytown desire to ignore her and parade her whenever is necessary.

How a love triangle works — James Mason, Robert Ryan and Barbara Bel Geddes in Caught (1949)

The madness of this character Smith Ohlrig, brought to life by Robert Ryan, is said to be suggestive of that of Howard Hughes. His fits of abuse and aggression end in him playing bouts of exceptionally angry pinball, and like Hughes, we see him in action in his own private cinema, as well as barking instructions to everyone, controlling the world through money with an unwillingness to listen to anybody.Max Ophüls

Leonora escapes this scene and gets a job with a doctor (James Mason) in a poor district where she falls in love — not before she has been berated by him, ironically now for being too classy. What is a woman to do? Nothing it would seem, in this uneven world where morality changes from room to room, and person to person.

Barbara Bel Geddes is — Caught (1949)

With this love declared and ensured, Leonora finds some happiness. There is a scene where she goes dancing with James Mason and they are seen on a super-crowded dancefloor, unable to find space, and bumping into everyone, but still finding this quite funny. It is a great touch to contrast the emptiness and isolation of her real home — the mansion.

Darkness swoops as we slip into noir towards the end of the film, and strange imagery grows stranger as Robert Ryan's megalomaniac industrialist explains how he is going to destroy his wife completely — using money, he explains, he can get lawyers and doctors to say anything he pleases — and take their child for his own, cutting her off entirely. 

We do believe Barbara Bel Geddes as Leonora when she says that she did not marry for money but for love, but we believe her because of her morality and our fondness for her. We do never see why she married her uber-abusive husband, but we do see the symbol of it all returning again and again — the fur coat, which turns up repeatedly. The significance is that there is something wrong with marriage, especially among the rich — in which woman are bought by men.

The men straighten out their love affairs in Caught (1949)

Visiting the 1950s — were we able to do that — we would see that the cinematic media of the day presented one idea maybe more than any other around women, which is that all women wanted, what they sought, and what made them women above all — was a mink coat. Wealthy husbands give these coats to their wives in movies, usually after much manipulation from the women. And crime films always showed mobsters giving their women these same items.

Caught (1949) also moves into a territory seen in Citizen Kane (1941) in its second half, when we see the awful marriage between the domineering rich man and the poor woman. In both films the women become prisoners in a mansion — although these women are not of the paranoid woman type — simply because they are cognisant of their fate, and still unable to act.Max Ophüls

In both homes there are foreign-sounding chief stewards who are cynical and have more independence than the wife. And in both films there is an accordingly dark vision of capitalism, and a negative vision of the rich.

Caught is in no sense a crime story, and is at heart — as well as in the clinical headspace of the genre defies it — a romantic drama. There is no sense of the high-contrast shadowing we love from classic film noir, and there is also none of the flashback style nor any of the visual stylistics of noir. Yet — there is still a film noir like feel at times, especially delving into the theme of obsession and also in the duel between the honest lower class character played by James Mason and the powerful rich and sinister character played by Robert Ryan. 

A women scorned, bullied, maddened, disappointed and used
Barbara Bel Geddes in Caught (1949)

Caught also take its heroes to a nightclub with African American people. Similar to William Castle's When Strangers Marry (1944) and Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), Caught is a film made by  made by liberals who wanted to integrate the screen. Caught is less forceful than similar films, which gave speaking roles to African American characters.

From Mike Grost: If Caught is less innovative, its dance sequence comes from the same spirit of pro-Civil Rights activism. Here, the black musicians play as hero James Mason proposes to the heroine. They suggest that he is part of the great democratic masses of the people, not a member of the elite.

Caught may finally have the precious privilege of being Barbara Bel Geddes' best film noir, and one of her best performances. Other than Max Ophüls himself, the one giving everything in Caught is Barbara Bel Geddes. Her star performance and comfort with her body, her sweetness and genuine sense of morality are what any viewer can stay for in Caught (1949). Cowering on the stairs or lying out in her downtown digs, catwalk and mansion floor, she is very good in a film that changes environment quickly, and all the time.

Nobody can see Caught and finally, before bowing out, have reached the title card at the end, and still not be thinking about one moment, maybe five minutes previous to that; and fail to be asking the same question:

What in the hell just happened?

Did that doctor just force feed neat whisky to a pregnant woman having a fit? The answer is most certainly yes, and we may never know whose idea this was. There is a novel by Libbie Block, and that would be where to start. 

Of all the mysteries of film noir, and the shadowy areas explored, nobody has dared speculate as to why James Mason force feed raw scotch to a barely conscious pregnant woman. We can only hope that the ensuing loss of the child was not down to this kind of prenatal care.

Pinball crush — Robert Ryan and Barbara Bel Geddes in
Caught (1949)

Smith is an asshole even when his pinball game falls on him. He calls out for his wife's help. She doesn’t help him. Leonora loses her baby but Smith no longer has anything to hold her back. Quinada assures her that she'll recover. She does not need the mink coat anymore.

Leonora is not a gold digger but does convince herself that she’s in love with Smith before marrying him. She really does try to have a relationship with him, but he’s the one who refuses her and the possibility of any fun at all, simply bullying and captivity is all he has to offer.

Vulnerable to love in Caught (1949)

Murder by inaction is what Leonora thinks she's done, but she has not, since Smith doesn't die. But Leonora did let him be crushed under his pinball machine.

Throughout the film, Leonora tries to create the narrative also that her marriage is not about the money, yet she was the one who went to the weird charm school, a part of which is about trying to find a rich man to take care of her, but she truly fell in love with Ohlig. Ohlig was Max Ophuls’ fictional take on Howard Hughes.

No comments:

Post a Comment