Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ophüls Noir Part Two: Caught (1949)

I guess Max Ophüls was just too big for film noir. He was the premier artist of lushly romantic period pieces (Letter From An Unknown Woman, Madame de…, Lola Montès), 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 Lady 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.

It tells the story of a poor young woman named Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes). Her big dream is to meet Mr. Right, preferably a rich Mr. Right. She takes modeling and charm school lessons, and then one day she lucks out when the slimy personal assistant to a millionaire sees her modeling fur coats at a department store and invites her to a yacht party. Leonora is so turned off by this creepy little guy’s insinuating manner—he essentially treats her like a self-deluded prostitute—she almost doesn’t go to the party. At her roommate’s prodding she changes her mind, but it’s unclear exactly why she changes her mind. Leonora is funny that way. She doesn’t want to be treated like a prostitute, but she does want to get on that boat and maybe catch herself a millionaire.

She never makes it to the boat, though, because she runs into the millionaire on the docks, and he invites her along for a ride in his convertible. His name is Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and he is a hulking mass of money and nerves. He doesn’t so much sweep Leonora off her feet as much as he decides to buy her. In no time at all, they’re married and completely miserable. Smith seems to detest Leonora for merely existing, convinced that she only married him for his money. Leonora professes her love for him, but the fact is, she did marry him for his money. However, when Smith humiliates her in front of his drinking buddies one night, Leonora leaves him and gets a job as a receptionist for a pediatrician named Larry Quinada (James Mason). She and the good doctor soon fall in love, but Smith starts poking around, threatening to make trouble for both of them. Then Leonora discovers she’s pregnant with Smith’s child.

I have to tread carefully over plot details here because part of the power of the last act of Caught is its surprising attitude toward this pregnancy. The audience isn’t happy that Leonora is pregnant with Smith’s child, and neither is she or Quinada. Smith is happy because it gives him a way to “break” Lenora. He tells her that if she doesn’t come back to him, he’ll take the child away from her in court. Smith (who was reportedly modeled after Howard Hughes) is one sick bastard of a man. Why does he want Leonora back? Because she doesn’t want to come back. He just wants to break her. The movie finds a way to resolve this 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.

The film was based on a novel by Libbie Block, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. 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.

Ophüls’ direction is superb. Here was a director. His camera glides back and forth throughout the film but never simply for the sake of being flashy. Look at the scene of Leonora and Quinada out on their date, jostled on the dance floor, deciding that maybe they’re in love, and notice how the camera finds them at all the right times. Or look at the scene of Quinada and his partner at the doctor’s office after Leonora has run off, the camera swooping back and forth between them as they talk, Leonora’s empty desk between them highlighting the power of her absence.

For all its virtues, the film does have flaws. The last two or three minutes feel awfully rushed—as evidenced by a clumsy inserted shot of Bel Geddes that looks like it’s from a completely different film stock. And I couldn’t help but think that an opportunity had been missed in the casting. Robert Ryan played a psycho better than anyone, but it might have interesting to see Mason tackle the role of Smith Ohlrig. I mean, James Mason just looked and sounded like a guy named Smith Ohlrig. He does a serviceable job as Quinada, but Ryan would have brought more warmth to the role.

As Leonora, however, Barbara Bel Geddes is simply wonderful. An accomplished stage actress, Bel Geddes never made the big splash in the movies that she should have. Today she’s mostly remembered for her television role as the mother on Dallas, but for movie fans she’ll always be Jimmy Stewart’s lovelorn friend Midge in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. She also appeared in a few noirs (Panic In The Streets, Fourteen Hours), as well as Robert Wise’s terrific Western-Noir Blood On The Moon. With her spunk and palpable intelligence, Bel Geddes is a welcome addition to any movie, and she positively anchors Caught. Leonora could be played on two different extremes, either as coy or as self-pitying. Instead, Bel Geddes makes her a woman wrestling with her own sense of self. Her choice between Smith and Quinada isn’t simply a choice between two men or even two ways of life. It’s a choice between two Leonoras.

The AFI in Silver Spring Maryland is currently having a Ophüls retrospective. The noir portion is over I'm afraid, but they're still showing some of his later, greater masterpieces. Here's the information on the films and show times.

Here's another look at Caught, including some great stills.

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