Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Papa Mike's Video #13: Max Ophuls' CAUGHT (1949)

One of the great things about Max Ophuls, the director who made fluid tracking shots and balletic rhythms of the camera as his mete, was that he didn't perform his style as if it was something to show off to audiences or to show like 'I can do this better than you' like some filmmakers might do today.  There's this quote on the IMDb trivia page for his 1949 melodrama Caught, where co-star James Mason says:

"I think I know the reason why producers tend to make him cry. Inevitably they demand some stationary set-ups, and a shot that does not call for tracks is agony for dear poor Max, who, separated from his dolly, is wrapped in deepest melancholy. Once, when they took away his crane, I thought he'd never smile again..." 

In other words, it was a compulsion, like it was part of his cinematic DNA make-up, to direct the way he did, even when he had material that could easily turn into the tawdry or soapy or even putrid like Caught.  But there's an attention to the storytelling and how he gets his actors in the frame, and how they get to points you don't expect and exceed them, that makes this a memorable film that really is *about* something very deep and terrible for a portion of the population.  That said, you shouldn't necessarily expect a typical film-noir either, despite the appearance of noir-mainstay Robert Ryan (of On Dangerous Ground).

What sorts of options did women have back in that time?  Find a man and get married.  Fine, but what if that wouldn't quite do?  Perhaps someone of means and wealth would be a big plus, and especially since a woman who might become the fancy of someone with money would need to be, shall we say, subservient. 

Caught is very much a feminist screed about what it means to have choices in this world (and to have them, of course, be stripped away) where Lenora (Barbara Bel Geddes, of that small role people tend to sadly forget from Vertigo) is a sort-of model in a department store and gets told to come to a boat party hosted by the very wealthy Smith Ohlrig (Ryan).  They don't go on the boat, and instead he takes her for a ride in his car to his place.  Already the pressure is on her to do... something with him, but what isn't verbalized, it's just some not-so-vague expectation in the air.  Soon-after he goes for a therapy session that leads nowhere, and they get married.

Why so fast to get married?  The film emphasizes, borderline (or just plain over the line) yells out in capital letters, that a woman has to know how to find her place in society.  But as this is a melodrama, and in melodrama tragedy tends to unfold like another character in the rooms, it all goes downhill the moment that Lenora gives in and does what's expected of her - or, perhaps, what Smith expects that he is also supposed to do to her as well.

But then he's never had any other choice himself, being the spawn of wealth and, as he says at one point in a memorable monologue, he made something of himself with his millions ("22 times over", he oddly bitterly proclaims), and may indeed be insane with his pill-popping and uptight attitude.  Actually, uptight is putting it lightly.  He's a psychotic prick who puts Lenora into a life that is more like a prison - think the scenes with Susan and Charles Foster Kane in that giant mansion in full wide-depth-of-field mansion - and practically makes her have to get away, despite the fact that she has fallen in love with him (or told herself she has).

A lot of this is fascinating to watch because of how much the actors commit to these characters.  I hadn't seen Bel Geddes in many performances outside of this, but here she is really terrific as a woman who is not THE most attractive of the stars of the period (not ugly by any stretch, just more normal looking than a bombshell or beauty like Ann Sheridan or Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth or something).  It makes it a little more of a complex thing why he marries her - he admits later he hated her for making him marry her, in so many words what he says in a twisted moment of logic - and it makes it all the more compelling when she separates from him to find a job of her own in New York as a secretary for a doctor (James Mason).

Mason may be playing the more straight-forward, almost perhaps audience surrogate here, as the one who sees what a good person Lenora is (which Smith never does, whether through being a stubborn dickhead or just through his mania), and she finds comfort in someone who likes her for what she is and what she can think about and be.  An example by the way of Ophuls effective way of moving the camera can be seen in a scene with ironically not that much movement, when Lenora and the Doctor are talking over drinks at a bar; the talk goes on for a little while, with Mason talking, and then a character comes by to say hello (it happens once, then later in the scene again) and the second time the camera then moves, motivated by this character coming and going, and yet he stays on them, never cutting over the course of a few minutes.  It's an effective moment because we're brought in to the space of the characters growing together more, and it's one example of the director's supreme mastery of his craft.

It's a shame that some little moments of the story are a little typical, and yet I almost expected it to be cornier or to have lessor dialog.  There are times where Ryan struggles a little to get more emotional than another actor might have done - he's not Kirk Douglas, put it that way - but maybe keeping a lot of his rage and hostility and craziness inside makes him more intriguing as an obstacle if not just an outright villain for Lenora to conquer.  And as the melodrama keeps moving forward, it's not as is Ophuls changes things up to gain momentum in the shots, as from the start he's all about showing the psychological turmoil of these characters.

It's inspired somewhat by Howard Hughes (I don't really see the OCD expressed here, it was probably difficult to reference directly since he was alive then and active in Hollywood), and yet it works as its own creation; I didn't think about Hughes while watching it, but then this kind of story about characters who manipulate and get manipulated can take place in any setting, it's just that the decor is big and expansive to make it seem even more oppressive in this case, or like some old castle (or, again, like in the latter parts of Kane).

Caught is an impressive movie for what it goes past in expectations, and it embraces how volcanic and turbulent some of the emotional turns get, how much a look or a revelation of something so common to a melodrama (is there a baby on the way, oh no!) is still elevated to interesting heights.  It may not have the greatest script in the world, but it has a director and a game cast who take it to another level, one that almost, I suspect, is sort of fighting some of the constraints of the Code at the time (i.e. what a wife could or couldn't do when in a marriage or in a love triangle or affair, what comes out of such and such), and what it really MEANS to be a woman, someone so easily (almost unexpectedly) under a man's proverbial thumb at the time.

One downside - if you look at the video cover, it's kind of a spoiler, and not indicative of what most of the movie is like.