Caught — Totally

Max Ophuls’ film CAUGHT is an interesting film in many ways and in many ways a good one — the Ophuls visual style is restrained but still elegant — until its ending. The movie can be seen as Ophuls’ revenge on Howard Hughes, who had fired him from VENDETTA (as he would later fire Preston Sturges and Stuart Heisler). Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, millionaire Smith Ohlrig*, who sends slimy agents out to recruit girls for him. Barbara Bel Geddes marries him, discovers he’s a monster, and flees. Then she falls in love with James Mason, but discovers she’s pregnant with Ryan’s baby, and goes back to him, like a good Code-obeying wife.

All this is very dramatic and interesting and of course beautifully filmed by Ophuls. Mason is a slum doctor which means he can be saintly and preferable to Ryan in every way, but also a bit stern and domineering in an attractive James Mason kind of way. But now that the film has established its most dramatic problem, it gets just as caught as Barbara, and can’t fight its way out of the plot tangle. Genre convention and Hollywood preference dictates a happy ending — sure, Barbara started out as a bit of a gold-digger, but she’s learned the error of her ways. But the movie can’t bring itself to spell D-I-V-O-R-C-E, despite Ryan’s obvious cruelty and abnormality. So he’s going to have to die. And he can’t be killed by any of the sympathetic characters. The only possibilities are to bring in a secondary character with a grudge, bump him off in an accident, or have him expire of natural causes. The movie plumps for the last option, but the trouble is these are all deus ex machina solutions, getting the heroes out of trouble without them having to lift a finger.

The going gets really weird when it comes to Ryan’s unborn child. There seems to be no specific Code ruling to prevent Barbara having her late husband’s child, marrying Mason and raising it. But everybody seems to have felt really uncomfortable about this cuckoo in the nest. So the blameless embryo must perish, a victim of Ryan’s mistreatment of his pregnant wife. This winds up being weirder by far than the extirpation of Joan Fontaine’s child in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, who after all was the product of sex out of wedlock. Despite the evidence of the world’s innumerable thriving bastards, illegitimate offspring under the Code have a tendency to die young.

The miscarriage is actually a more successful part of the plot than Ryan’s convenient collapse, since after all, he had been mistreating Barbara. But now the movie wants to cram its cake into its gaping maw while hugging it simultaneously to its bosom, and so makes an ill-judged attempt to fold the miscarriage into the happy ending. It’s all for the best! A James Mason baby will obviously be cuter than a Robert Ryan baby. And at least slightly smaller! The transports of joy into which Mason persuades his newly bereaved bride-to-be in the back of an ambulance make for an extremely strange and awkward conclusion. Sometimes, there’s just no room to squeeze between the Scilla of Joe Breen and the Charybdis of the Hollywood Ending.

*The name Smith Ohlrig is so preposterous I figured it had to be an anagram, and so it is: of Girlish Moth.

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10 Responses to “Caught — Totally”

  1. Written by Arthur Laurents

  2. chris schneider Says:

    I love this film up through the final scene with Mason and Bel Geddes and Ryan in the garage. At that point I sigh and wait for the final credits. It’s a bit misguided, I think, to speak of a James Mason norm since this was Mason’s first US film and his “doctor with a conscience” character was in distinct contradiction of the WICKED LADY or SEVENTH VEIL character that audiences expected. As for the end of Ryan, as you write of it, I’m rather reminded of Algernon’s description of the end of Bunbury. “He quite exploded!”

  3. Lutz Bacher Says:

    The facts of the production are stranger yet than what can be gathered even from careful screenings and knowledge of industry history. A production history would help with the source of the Smith Ohlrig name, the reason why he doesn’t die and much else. True, most films don’t have a detailed one. But this one does.

  4. I gather he’s Ohlrig in the book, where he’s not in oil. The combination of oil and Ohlrig seems unfortunate.

  5. He marries her because of the production code. The real story is of a woman sexually exploited by a powerful man who gets her pregnant.

  6. I like the moving camera that hovers above Bel Geddes’ office desk as Mason and the other doctor discuss her absence.

  7. Lutz Bacher Says:

    It’s one example of the most sophisticated integration of camera blocking and editing Ophuls accomplished in his American films, partly because he was working with the new crab dolly Hitchcock had pioneered in The Paradine Case and Rope, and partly because he had sympathetic collaborators in cinematographer Lee Garmes and, especially, the young Oscar-winning editor Robert Parrish. Read Brian Henderson’s “The Long Take” on this.

  8. Oh, I must!

    i like how Ophuls leaves in little line flubs during long takes — there are several in Lola Montes, and Barbara stumbles over her words in the opening scene, which is composed of a couple of long takes as I recall. It plays very naturalistically, but is far from the typical style of the 40s. Had Ophuls lived longer, I wonder if he’d have embraced the method? Perhaps, like Hitchcock, he’d have found it clashed with his rigorous camera style.

  9. Lutz Bacher Says:

    With Caught, some of the “flubbing” must be ascribed to the terrible pressure to keep to schedule and budget as Enterprise was winding down. Especially during the retakes period, during which the opening was shot, there was no margin for error. As Aldrich has said (I paraphrase), if it looked at all acceptable, they moved on to the next set-up. Ophuls’s tendency toward naturalism was especially pronounced in his desire to use ambient sound, not to “sweeten” it in post-prod’n as was the norm. In the post-script to his memoirs, Hilde Ophuls speculated that he might well have become part of the French New Wave, had he lived.

  10. It’s a lovely thought, and certainly the nouvelle vague admired Ophuls more than most filmmakers of his generation at work in France. Whether the feeling would have been mutual is impossible to say, and whether the New Wave was something outsiders could join is debatable, but it’s clear there was some kind of sympathy there, despite the vast outward differences.

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