Monday, 4 August 2008

Caught (1949, US, Max Ophuls)

Recently, I reviewed 'Letter From An Unknown Woman', a superior melodrama which remains probably the best of the four Ophuls films that I have seen. Made just a year after, 'Caught' was Ophuls' first attempt at making a contemporary American film. This too is another melodrama, but one that also acts as a scathing attack on certain American values of the era (materialism, ambition, success). Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), Caught's heroine starts as a rather shallow young woman about to enter charm/finishing school, with the sole intention of developing the refined habits and behaviour that will snare her a rich, successful husband. She reads fashion magazines, and romantically yearns for the good life. Naturally, her dreams becomes more of a nightmare.

Leonora meets and falls in love with Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a ruthless businessman with emotional and physical health issues. He's not so keen, but just to spite his psychoanalyst, he marries her regardless. Marriage isn't what Leonora expected it to be. Her charm school education is no use to her now. A man used to winning (who has heart palpitations when his superiority is threatened), Smith humiliates her in front of their friends/colleagues and wants to do his best to ruin her, ruling over her like a tyrant.

Escaping his clutches, she takes a job as a receptionist for the kind and self-sacrificing Dr Quinada (James Mason), and their attraction is mutual. However, when Smith finds her and wants her back (he can't accept losing her), Leonora is torn between the two men. Her yearning for a good life, for wealth, security and status take priority over love, though the crucial aspect is the fact she's pregnant with Smith's child and that Smith threatens a divorce citing adultery, giving him custody of their child, so perhaps Leonora is learning that her shallow ideals aren't what they're cracked up to be. Her eventual freedom is obtained in the most ironic of fashions, though not without a huge degree of tragedy, and what there is resembling a "happy ending" is incredibly subdued.

Like his fellow German, Douglas Sirk, Ophuls utilises the melodrama genre to raise significant and salient points about typically American values, increasingly held by many during a period of economic prosperity. Smith, unrestrained capitalism in human form is a cruel and merciless creature, who can't accept defeat and who must master others. Leonora's desire of Smith's world and her idealised notions of success and wealth display a sense of ambition that becomes her downfall. Only with the compassionate Quinada does Leonora find happiness, which refutes every ideal she previously held, although she struggles to let go of Smith's world. One wonders though, whether like Sirk's films, the satirical angle of 'Caught' was obviously noticed by its audience or whether it was just treated as a domestic nightmare and nothing more. Ophuls, who uses camera movement better and more interestingly than most, uses his technical gifts to show Leonora's world of peril - look at his use of lighting too when Leonora is faced with the moral dilemma of saving Smith's life when he has a heart attack. It would be so easy to let him die so she can be free and the contempt on her face is obvious, but Ophuls rejects such simple plot developments. 'The Reckless Moment' was made the same year, and should be considered together as incredibly pertinent dissections of contemporary American mores. 4/5

'Caught' is released on DVD on 8th September from Second Sight.

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