Movies We Like
Max Ophuls's reputation as one of the greatest of all film directors seems principally based on the films he did in Europe such as The Earrings of Madame De... (1953) and Lola Montes (1955), about which Andrew Sarris famously proclaimed “the greatest film of all time.” But before he got to those he was a temporary exile in Hollywood along with many of the greatest film directors of the 20th century, all European, all having fled from war-torn Europe. Some thrived in their new exotic environs (Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang), while some never quite regained their former stride (let’s at least think about including Jean Renoir here).
In Hollywood Max Ophuls made some of the most sophisticated thrillers of the late 1940s and yet, because they dealt with American women, were snubbed as "women's pictures" at the time. Both Ophuls's Caught and The Reckless Moment were released in 1949, ending the decade on a high note for nuanced portrayals of women attempting to navigate a darkened moral universe made unavoidable by the post-war era even as the coming Atomic Age onslaught of The Donna Reed Show was about to begin.
Caught stars Barbara Bel Geddes (best remembered as Miss Ellie Ewing, the family matriarch from Dallas and Midge, James Stewart's lovelorn best pal in Vertigo) as Lenora, a girl from the sticks who grew up poor and has corny dreams of landing a rich man. She’s a naïve, somewhat tacky young woman who pores through fashion magazines in her crummy Los Angeles apartment, vain, self-centered, not particularly curious. She wants someone to take care of her, to give her a luxurious life without being asked to contribute to society. Who says old movies can't say anything about our present moment?
She saves up for charm school lessons, as any of us might consider, and is soon learning proper diction (which makes them all sound like they are speaking with a faux British accent, in that phony Old Hollywood sort of way), and how to walk around with a book on her head. From this scholarly endeavor she gets a job modeling mink coats for a department store, where she meets a wealthy businessman named Smith Ohlrig (played by super menace Robert Ryan) or, rather, she is procured by one of his slimy assistants to attend one of his yacht parties. She initially refuses the invitation because she’s “not that kind of girl’ but her equally wealth-obsessed roommate convinces her to see the opportunity as an investment in her future.
They meet and though Smith is creepy in a controlling millionaire sort of way (the character was reportedly based on Howard Hughes) Lenora inevitably falls for him. Smith proposes to her as a kind of challenge to himself that he can settle down with someone and learn to trust another human being. Lenora trades her charm school lessons for ‘the good life’ and the newspapers fawn over their luxurious wedding and extravagant home life in Long Island. But Smith only ever really wanted another prop to add to his house and Lenora grows unhappy being a wife trapped in a mansion while Smith jets off without warning. He comes back occasionally to hold secret business meetings at odd hours while Lenora wanders miserably around the mansion.
Tiring of feeling like a caged animal Lenora decides to strike out on her own and flees for New York and the hope of having an independent life away from Smith. Soon she has a job of her own in a pediatrician’s office. She’s poor but self-sufficient. Her boss, played by James Mason, sees something in her and though her ideas about marrying rich take a long time to dissipate he falls in love with her.
Caught is an interesting film partly because, while there’s no murder that takes place, there is a genuine sense of menace brought on by Ryan’s character which darkens the film considerably. He’s never violent but it feels as though he’s capable of violence at any moment. He doesn’t hit Lenora or threaten to hurt her but this is very much a story of domestic violence. It’s Ophuls’s critique of American wealth and privilege as barriers to human connection and in that sense the film recalls, of all things, Married to the Mob, another film about a woman who trades a suffocating life of airless, joyless security and privilege for a scaled-down life in a thriving urban community. That film’s director, Jonathan Demme, was another marvelous director of women. It’s a shame that Ophuls made so few films in the United States. He brought a terrific insight into American postwar culture. Though to some extent it was Douglas Sirk who carried the torch into the 1950s in his absence.