Although some critics at the time found “Caught” to be a dime-store romance (Variety called it pulp fiction), more recent reviews have recognized its radical critique of capitalism. Its German-born director, Max Ophuls (1902-1957) fled the Nazis in 1941 and, despite being a theatre director and having directed films in France, Italy and Holland, could not find work in Hollywood. Eventually writer/director Preston Sturges helped him secure a position directing Vendetta (1946), an RKO production. Undergoing ridicule at the hands of the deranged mogul, Howard Hughes, could not be endured, however, and Ophuls was fired after only a few days. He was eventually able to make four pictures in Hollywood and in Caught, his third, he saw an opportunity for payback. Adapting Libbie Block’s novel Wild Calendar, Ophuls and screenwriter Arthur Laurents loosely based their movie on Hughes, in much the same way as Orson Welles had used Hearst as the model for Citizen Kane (1940).
A pretty carhop (Barbara Bel Geddes, centre on the right) goes without lunches to pay for charm school, changes her name from Maude to Leonora, gets a job as a department store model and, as in a fairy tale, finds herself married to the very rich, very neurotic financier, Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan, left in picture). Later, she flees Ohlrig’s Long Island castle, realising he is an ogre and heads for the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Next she finds a job as a receptionist for the idealistic Dr. Larry Quinada (James Mason, right in picture). But complications ensue after Leonora finds herself pregnant.
Ophuls (below) was artistically accomplished and his imagery is aided by a fluid, constantly moving camera. This enhanced some extraordinary performances from the cast and also heightened dramatic moments. His camera seems interested in everything: what is in the doctors’ waiting room, what is happening on the streets and in the stores; the camera even warns of danger at the top of the stairs in a mansion; its back-and-forth motion allows it to participate in a key conversation between doctors; and importantly it captures the terrifying personality of Ohlrig.
According to critic Andrew Sarris, Ophuls “gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of cinema…. [but he] is much more than the sum of all his camera movements … [in] the preciseness of his sensibility.” While editing “tends to suspend time in the limbo of abstract images, [Ophuls’] moving camera records inexorably the passage of time, moment by moment.” This movement in the “passage of time” is most striking in the scene in which Larry (James Mason) proposes to Leonora in a nightclub: the camera rotates around their embracing bodies, packed in with others on a crowded dance floor while, conspicuously, a black band performs.
Although Bosley Crowther of The New York Times said of Caught that it was ” a very low-grade dime-store romance, expensively rendered on film,” he did not seem to notice that, in chronicling the emotional progression of his characters, the film shows how the real heartbeat of humanity exists not in the great figures and celebrities of society, but in the population at large. The film also pointedly argues that nothing important can be found between the cold walls of palatial estates or in their stifled inhabitants.
Welles jokingly referred to Citizen Kane as “dollar-book Freud.” For all its apparent clichés, Caught is something more than that. By dramatizing Leonora’s struggle to escape the constraints of conventional womanhood, the film is a critique of the Cinderella complex and also illustrates the ways in which femininity is enforced through advertising and the media. Adding to its psychological richness, free-floating symbols circulate throughout (notably cigarettes and coats). Being about a Wall Street tycoon, its portrayal of financial parasites as authoritarian and even fascistic, allows Caught to take on an additional layer of meaning under our present circumstances.
While Ophuls himself admitted that the film’s ending was a bit soft, Jean-Luc Godard, then a critic, called it “Max’s best American film.” Caught argues that the very rich are pathological, trapped in a society that destroys their spirit and compassion; that those in search of limitless material wealth are psychologically damaged, driven as they are by bogus notions of – in this case – the American dream; that, in reality, the more money they accumulate, the more miserable they become (please take note, all you bankers out there!).
Caught was the last feature from Enterprise Pictures, the left-leaning production company associated with John Garfield. Using Lower East Side locations and displaying a strong class awareness, the film is of a piece with Garfield vehicles Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948). The movie’s treatment of what early-20th-century Marxists called ‘The Woman Question’ may have been introduced by Abraham Polonsky, who wrote an early version of the screenplay signed by Arthur Laurents. (In some ways, Caught anticipates Polonsky’s proto-feminist adaptation of I Can Get It for You Wholesale , his last credit before he was blacklisted.)
Ophuls once said that cinema had given birth to “a new kind of tension which, I believe, has never existed before in any of the other forms of dramatic expression…In films the words, the technology and the technique and the logic of the visible must all be secondary to the image, subordinate to the vision containing the untold wonders within it, which, in the cinema can be the bearer of artistic truth.”
Barbara Bel-Geddes’ role was originally meant for Ginger Rogers. This was also James Mason’s first American picture (which was emphasized in its marketing – click on the title near the top to see the trailer).