Combustible Celluloid
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With: Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason, Robert Ryan, Frank Ferguson, Curt Bois, Ruth Brady, Natalie Schafer, Art Smith
Written by: Arthur Laurents, based on a novel by Libbie Block
Directed by: Max Ophüls
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 88
Date: 02/17/1949

Caught (1949)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Model Wife

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Max Ophüls is one of the more complex filmmakers in cinema history. Many critics consider him among the best of the best, Andrew Sarris chief among them. But others dismiss him as a maker of highly decorated, yet cornball women's pictures. Certainly Caught was treated as one of the latter. It was made during Ophüls' brief Hollywood career, where he made four English-language pictures between 1947 and 1949. (He was probably the only filmmaker to have made films in five languages, English, French, German, Italian, and Dutch.) But more than a cursory look at it reveals hidden complexities and untold depths.

Barbara Bel Geddes -- later known for her supporting role in Vertigo -- stars as Maude Eames, a carhop who saves up to go to charm school. She changes her name to Leonora and lands a job in a department store. Through a twist of fate, she meets millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), who is a terminal bachelor, but who agrees to marry Leonora basically to spite his shrink.

Despite her new wealth, Leonora finds life as Ohlrig's wife intolerable. She leaves and takes a job as a nurse for a do-gooder doctor, Larry Quinada (James Mason), with whom she predictably falls in love. But Ohlrig is not quite finished with her yet. (Apparently, the Ohlrig character was based on Howard Hughes, whom Ophüls had had some dealings with.)

Bel Geddes may not seem quite right for this part, and indeed, the part was apparently once intended for Ginger Rogers. But the actress steps up and finds a powerful center to her role. She always appears to be thinking, to be considering both sides of things. She never comes across as stupid, or as a victim. And Mason and Ryan match her in two very fine performances, not to mention the great supporting cast. (I always enjoy seeing Frank Ferguson, who is ingrained in my memory from his appearance in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.)

Ophüls seems to have sympathy for the lives of women during this day and age, for their limited choices, and for the way that each of these things can simply lead to a trap (as the title indicates). Jobs are limited, but husbands can be even more limited. The movie has a wrapped-up ending, but it's not quite a happy one.

As ever, Ophüls' camera is incredibly graceful, favoring long shots and exquisite framing, juxtaposing opulent sets with more simplistic ones. It's a majestic piece of filmmaking, which can be almost unnoticeable, given the second-rate nature of the material. It's perhaps not quite the achievement that Letter from an Unknown Woman is, but it's a great film nonetheless.

As with Letter from an Unknown Woman the wonderful folks at Olive Films have given Caught its first American DVD and Blu-ray release for 2014. As always, there are no extras, but don't let that stop you.

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