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Savant Blu-ray Review

Olive Films
1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 88 min. / Street Date July 8, 2014 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan, Frank Ferguson, Curt Bois, Ruth Brady, Natalie Schafer, Art Smith.
Lee Garmes
Film Editor Robert Parrish
Original Music Friedrich Hollaender
Written by Arthur Laurents from a novel by Libbie Block
Produced by Wolfgang Reinhardt
Directed by Max Ophüls

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In general the 'star' European directors that fled France and Germany for Hollywood during WW2 acquitted themselves with honor. Getting off to a slow start but contributing three great films in just two years was director Max Ophüls, whose continental output was known only to other émigrés and the most highly cultured American film fans. Ophüls got tangled up with one of Howard Hughes' pet projects and discovered, like his sponsor-friend Preston Sturges, how destructive that could be. The short-lived Enterprise Productions enjoyed a couple of hits but was already on the ropes when Caught was before the cameras. Producer Wolfgang Reinhardt lined up a top creative team to back up Ophüls' show. Newcomer Barbara Bel Geddes and solid actor Robert Ryan ceded top billing to James Mason, the English matinee idol hoping to do good work in bigger American films.

Although a relatively modest production, Caught looks like a much bigger picture thanks to Max Ophüls impressive direction. Los Angeles carhop Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) is determined to live a rich and glamorous life, and pinches pennies to attend a charm school. Her friend Maxine (Ruth Brady) helps her become a department store model, where the unpleasant Franzi Kartos (Curt Bois), a personal secretary to the industrial tycoon Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), invites her on a ritzy, somewhat risky yacht-cruise party to Catalina. Feeling that she has no options Leonora waits on the dock, but instead meets Ohlrig in person. Domineering and self-absorbed, Ohlrig assumes he can have any woman he wants and becomes disturbed when Leonora refuses to be casually compromised. Reacting to a criticism from his psychiatrist (Art Smith), the tycoon impulsively marries Leonora. But instead of a honeymoon he installs her in his Long Island mansion and uses her as an all-hours social committee for endless business meetings. He orders her about as if she were a servant. Leonora has little time alone with her husband and when they do talk he insinuates that she only loves his money. She finally runs away to New York City and talks herself into a receptionist's job for a ghetto doctor, Larry Quinada (James Mason). But she doesn't tell Quinada that she's married, nor does she explain the incongruity of her high-toned background. And all the while, Smith Ohlrig's detectives are watching her.

The late 1940s saw a big upswing in socially conscious filmmaking but also a number of films whose underlying theme was a harsh criticism of capitalism, material success and the worship of luxuries -- in short, all the things that motivate the working class to try to beat a tough system. Caught's screenwriter Arthur Laurents was a definite leftist whose beliefs were in agreement with those of Robert Rosson and Abraham Polonsky, the makers of Enterprise Productions' Force of Evil and Body and Soul: the message of all these films is that America is in the grip of a false consumerist value system that puts a price on everything, including people.

Caught's Leonora Eames does her best to feed herself to this system. We first see her dreaming over pictures of clothing and jewelry in fashion magazines. Her friends likewise believe the same fairy tale that happiness will only come by attracting a handsome and rich Prince Charming. Leonora has to be goaded and shamed into attending a boating party, as she knows she'll be tempted to become a plaything of some man she never met before. She instead hits the jackpot and becomes a news cycle Cinderella, the girl who nabbed the most eligible and handsome millionaire in America.

But Smith Ohlrig (sounds like "oil rig") turns out to be a nightmare husband. Robert Ryan plays him as an ultra-aggressive sociopath, a 'winner' who must crush all competition and dominate every aspect of his life. Ryan's eyes never looked as darkly menacing. He hides his emotions like a petulant boy. Leonora is just another of his possessions. He resents her because he married her practically on a dare, as he might snatch up a company just to spite other buyers. Leonora realizes that her ambitions have only led her into a trap. Denied love and attention, she feels worse than ever. Maxine can't understand Leonora's problem, now that everything she touches is the highest quality money can buy.

Leonora discovers a new set of values working for Dr. Quinada. To the credit of the script and direction James Mason's handsome medico is not just another brand of Prince Charming. Leonora has to learn the kinds of skills ordinary people learn to hold down an average job. She also must drop her pretensions of class -- her unsolicited advice to a disadvantaged mother just causes more trouble. Dr. Quinada slowly begins to appreciate his new hire, especially when Leonora adapts to the job and learns the meaning of doing things for other people, without reward.

As is expected with Max Ophüls, many subtle touches are present. When working as a department store model Leonora is asked to 'show the lining' of a coat she is modeling. The man really wants to see her body: the real merchandise is Leonora herself. Later on Dr. Quinada wants to reward Leonora, who no longer owns a good coat. He just shows up with one and makes her try it on. Leonora feels uneasy about this, as her entire existence was previously geared to finding the right man to give her things. But Quinada's generosity is genuine -- he's not negotiating a deal.

When Smith Ohlrig forces his way back into her life, Leonora can see that his every statement about people is an aggressive, self-oriented judgment that presumes someone is trying to cheat him. And when Leonora becomes pregnant Ohlrig immediately realizes that the baby gives him a way to control her, to bend her to his will. Caught's most subversive message is that cutthroat American business is a game for sociopaths and psychotics.

Things are different back in the doctor's office, where relationships are honest and based on mutual trust. Quinada's well-adjusted partner Dr. Hoffman (Frank Ferguson) confirms Leonora's pregnancy. Hoffman thinks Quinada may be the father but knows that the issue is none of his business. He neither judges Leonora nor betrays her confidence to Quinada. Without resorting to high-flung dramatics or drastic violence, Max Ophüls film transcends soap opera banalities to deliver a potent lesson in ethics.

Caught has a high reputation, yet when discussing it reviewers tend to limit themselves to the same two themes. It's not difficult to see that Smith Ohlrig is a close cousin to Howard Hughes, the mogul who made part of Ophüls' American sojourn a miserable experience. The cynical Smith bullies associates and plays hardball in all of his business dealings. His need for power over people causes him to bed as many women as possible and persecute those that resist his advances. He can't stand the idea of anybody, especially a woman, laughing behind his back. Ohlrig also expresses discomfort around things that aren't perfectly clean, another detail that fits Howard Hughes's paranoid personality. But tagging the movie as just an attack on Hughes is selling it short, as the Smith Ohlrig character is meant to symbolize the entire system of profit and power.

Often quoted in conjunction with Caught is a poem James Mason wrote to kid Max Ophüls about his constantly moving camera. Almost certainly written in good fun (Mason went right on to another film with the director), the poem is often linked to criticism that Ophüls was dolly shot-crazy and couldn't hold the camera still. This is utter nonsense. When watching an Ophüls film we only become aware of the camera in certain tour-de-force shots, usually in one of his later European pictures. Only in Lola Montès is camera movement a purposely ostentatious part of the show. The camera moves quite a bit in Caught but follows the emotional line of the story so closely that we're mostly not aware of it. The one sequence that stands out is one with the two doctors. Hoffman shaves on his side of the office. On the other side Quinada asks questions about the missing Leonora. The camera keeps moving between the two men, and finally settles on the empty desk between them: Leonora's. Her absence has left a big hole in that clinic.

Besides, Caught is packed with impressive stationary shots. The shots of Ohlrig's vast mansion are routinely compared to Charlie Kane's digs in Citizen Kane, so now we must hear Ophüls described as a "Wellsian" director.

What begs for discussion is the film's ragged ending, which so weakens the picture than one would think Howard Hughes had something to do with it ... he was forever tinkering with vandalizing the work of his directors. We're told that both John Berry and Robert Aldrich directed additional material for the film. Charles Higham and Joel Greenburg claimed that Berry filmed the scenes at Natalie Schaefer's charm school, when Ophüls fell sick. If so, Berry did a terrific job, as the sequence does not conflict stylistically with the rest of the movie.

The ending is a different story. After the big scene in the Long Island mansion the picture disintegrates for a couple of odd, awkward scenes that are obviously reshoots. Robert Ryan's character is not seen again. Barbara Bel Geddes' Leonora lies silent for an unconvincing scene in a speeding ambulance, in which James Mason's Quinada very hurriedly proclaims his love, offers her a medical prognosis, and re-caps most of the events of the movie. It's a blur of raw exposition. The final scene sees Drs. Hoffman and Quinada talking in a hospital corridor, and a cute but lame bit with a nurse asking what to do with Leonora's fancy mink coat. Cut into this scene is a single shot of Leonora in a hospital bed, a down-angle that is clearly an optical-blow up. Although she's supposed to be alone in the room, Leonora looks to our left as if listening to somebody who isn't there -- because whoever is there was cropped out when the optical blow-up was done.

We're left to presume that a quick reshoot was needed to replace an original hospital room scene. But why? Did the Production Code office object to something about the issue of Leonora's baby? Was the original ending not 'romantic enough' to promote James Mason, or was it simply too quiet and downbeat? We'd certainly like to know Ophüls' and Laurents' original intentions.

Did Robert Aldrich direct this final re-shoot? The film's editor is the great Robert Parrish, but Michael Luciano is credited as an additional 'montage editor'. He's presumably responsible for the montages of newspapers covering the Eames-Ohlrig marriage and a later similar flurry of headlines, just before the rushed finale. But did Luciano help with the re-cut as well? In a few years he would serve as the editor on almost all of director Robert Aldrich's American films.

Olive Films' Blu-ray of Caught is a fine, mostly clean encoding of this quality noir gem. It showed constantly on late-night television until the advent of cable TV, and then went missing until a VHS release in the 1990s. Scattered dirt and a few dings intrude here and there but we greatly appreciate the ability to admire cinematographer Lee Garmes' deep-focus camerawork. The title is also available in the DVD format.

We also get an interesting music score from Friedrich Hollaender, whose talents range much further than the special material he wrote for Marlene Dietrich. One good effect of Ophüls' moving camera is our heightened awareness of the confined spaces in Leonora's apartments, the medical office, etc., yet the movie never feels claustrophobic. By contrast, Smith Ohlrig's mansion always seems cavernous and creepy. He's really a cut-rate Citizen Kane: the mansion has to be spotless at all times. But Ohlrig has no interest in art. His idea of relaxation is to shake and pound a pinball game, in the same brutal way he handles companies and people.

I can only assume that Olive Films is carefully following billing guidelines when it spells Max Ophüls as 'Max Opuls' several times on its disc package. That's how the director is listed on this film as well as in the main credits for all four of his American features, so it's apparently intentional. I can see dropping the umlaut to dodge German haters, but Max Opuls seems no less 'foreign' and just sounds odd. It might look good as the brand name on a perfume bottle; otherwise it reminds me of a car called an Opel Kadett. Does any better-read Ophüls booster have the full story on this?  1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Caught Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Audio: English
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 9, 2014


1. Correspondent Harry Holland wrote in with some Ophüls name change information:

"Hi Glenn, I searched on Opuls and found this in Google Books -- "Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios", by Lutz Bacher, Rutgers University Press, 1996, page 76:

"Its highlight, Clarence Ericksen's presentation to Fairbanks of the sword Fairbanks, Sr., had used in The Iron Mask and of the scenario for The Thief of Bagdad, signified The Exile's link to the spirit of the elder Fairbanks' films. The occasion also marked the change from Ophuls to Opuls. On Fairbanks' urging, Ophüls had agreed to forestall future pronunciation problems by dropping the 'h' for professional purposes." (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was the Producer and star of 1947's The Exile.)

That passage has a footnote, #27. If I found the correct footnote, then Bacher got that claim from a "U-I Press Release, 24 Apr. 1947, U-USC; Fairbanks interview."

Also, per Ronald Bergan, The Guardian, Wednesday 9 August 2000:

"To protect his family's reputation he changed his name when he entered the "disreputable" entertainment business. (In Hollywood, it was changed again briefly to Max Opuls so that, according to some mogul, nobody would confuse it with "offal" or "awful".)"

Thanks muchly for continuing to enlighten and entertain us while encouraging us to buy these wonderful movies. -- Harry Holland

And, correspondent Steffan Andersson has found a great article about Caught in general:

The American Cinematographer website has a full, thorough and comprehensive article about the filming of Caught and the controversy over who shot what, and why the ending was re-shot. The link is at The ASC Site.

Don't forget Savant's review of
Olive Films' Letter from an Unknown Woman
Criterion's La ronde,
The Earrings of Madame de... and
Lola Montès,
all great Max Ophüls films.

Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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