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A melodrama and thriller with a very dark edge, director Max Ophuls' Caught (1949) centers on a lovely, romantic young woman Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) who wants nothing more than to fall in love. But her friends are more pragmatic, and encourage Eames to find a rich husband. Her first step toward that goal, on the advice of her roommate, is to enroll in the Dorothy Dale School of Charm where she learns how to entrap a man from the proper social station.
While practicing her newly-formed charm school skills as a department store model (look for Leave It to Beaver's Barbara Billingsley as a store customer interested in Eames' fur coat), Eames is approached by an effeminate toady, Franzi Kartos (Curt Bois) whose job it is to procure pretty girls for his very rich boss Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan). Kartos invites Eames to a party aboard Ohlrig's yacht, the beginning of a dark and tempestuous relationship. Eventually Eames and Ohlrig marry though it is more for Ohlrig to prove a point to his psychiatrist (Art Smith) than for love. Eames becomes an unhappy, unloved captive in Ohlrig's Long Island mansion until an ugly confrontation and Eames' decision to break away. She finds a job as a receptionist at a busy doctor's office in a working class Manhattan neighborhood where she falls in love with the principled, compassionate pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason) whose lack of materialism makes him everything Ohlrig is not. But Ohlrig isn't finished with Eames and he devises a plan to make sure she and Quinada will never be together.
A women's film about the "right" versus the "wrong" man, Caught is also a psychological thriller about the strange, aberrant obsessions that drive Ohlrig. We learn early on in the drama that there is a very good reason the tycoon spends much of his time on a psychoanalyst's couch; he has "issues," including an inability to deal with any perceived weakening of his power. When a business deal is in jeopardy or a woman threatens his autonomy, Ohlrig suffers mysterious "attacks," a malady his analyst writes off as purely psychological. Though his motives are never clear, his sickness is, and it invests Caught with a grim, film noir tone (greatly enhanced by cinematographer Lee Garmes' low-key lighting) as Ohlrig begins to reveal the depth of his sickness to Eames.
The character of Smith Ohlrig was reportedly based on the reclusive and deeply eccentric American titan Howard Hughes. Ophuls had actually worked with Hughes on the earlier Hughes production (from which Ophuls was fired), Vendetta (1946). At one point, it was reported that Hughes called Ophuls an "oaf." Though the Arthur Laurents script of Caught was supposedly based on the novel Wild Calendar by Libbie Block, Ophuls and Laurents also drew heavily from both Ophuls' personal experience, and their recollection of the millionaire's bizarre behavior and his female conquests.
James Mason abandoned a planned career as an architect to become an actor and Caught was his first American picture. He would follow it up with another Ophuls project The Reckless Moment (1949), which capitalized on the star's distinctive blend of charisma and angst.
Best known for her character Miss Ellie on the 13-year nighttime soap Dallas Bel Geddes was -- unlike the small-town Eames -- a cosmopolitan New York City girl whose father was stage designer and art director Norman Bel Geddes and who began her career in the theater and made her film debut in The Long Night (1947).
Hardly surprising, considering its incredibly dark underpinnings of madness, sexual manipulation and economic desperation, Caught was not a huge financial success though influential French film critic (and later, a filmmaker in his own right) Jean-Luc Godard called it "Max's best American film." Ophuls told The Cahiers du Cinema that "the film goes off the rails toward the end, but up to the last 10 minutes, it wasn't bad." "If you love movies," quipped The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, "then Ophuls is an undisputed heavyweight."
Christened Maximilian Oppenheimer, the German-born, French-national (he became a French citizen in 1938), Max Ophuls first began as an actor, moved into directing plays and became a director at Berlin's UFA where his first directorial debut was a 40 minute film I'd Rather Have Cod-Liver Oil.
Ultimately Ophuls bequeathed a small, but distinguished catalogue of films to cinematic history, including La Ronde (1950) and the breathtakingly dreamy, complex love stories Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and The Earrings of Madame De... (1953) which, like Caught, deal in part with a sympathetic female protagonist suffering within a patriarchal culture. Despite its superficial melodrama conventions, Caught is a remarkably cynical commentary on the American worship of money and how many women alter their bodies and minds in order to land a rich husband. The film is also distinguished by Ophuls' use of the long take, fluid camera work and an excess of style in his films (this is particularly evident in a scene in Caught where the camera tracks Eames and Quinada as they move across a crowded dance floor; dancing being another frequent motif of the director's). Ophuls worked successfully both abroad and moved to Hollywood in 1941 (being Jewish, he emigrated to escape the Nazis). At first he was broke and unable to get work until director Preston Sturges saw Liebelei (1933) and began to sing the director's praises. Peter Ustinov said of Ophuls, he "lived in his own particular stratosphere of subtlety, and...protected himself against the intrusion of philistines into his private world by a grotesque and wonderful perversity."
Ophuls made four American films before leaving the country in 1949 including Caught, The Reckless Moment, The Exile (1947) and Letter from an Unknown Woman. All were considered flops at the time, but are now recognized as artistic triumphs.
Producer: Wolfgang Reinhardt
Director: Max Ophuls
Screenplay: Arthur Laurents (screenplay); Libbie Block (novel "Wild Calendar")
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Art Direction: P. Frank Sylos
Music: Frederick Hollander
Film Editing: Robert Parrish
Cast: James Mason (Larry Quinada), Barbara Bel Geddes (Leonora Eames), Robert Ryan (Smith Ohlrig), Frank Ferguson (Dr. Hoffman), Curt Bois (Franzi Kartos), Ruth Brady (Maxine), Natalie Schafer (Dorothy Dale), Art Smith (Psychiatrist).
by Felicia Feaster