Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty-"Town & Country," starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Garry Shandling (2001)

The cast of "Town & Country": Goldie Hawn, Garry Shandling, Diane Keaton, Warren Beatty. There's a reason Garry Shandling is hiding.

Garry Shandling and Warren Beatty in "Town & Country." Yes, this movie really is as bad as this still makes it look.
Warren Beatty’s most recent film, “Town & Country,” made mostly in 1998-99 but not released until 2001, is one of his worst movies, if not his very worst. “Town & Country” is Beatty’s Woody Allen movie. Minus the funny parts. On paper, it might look like a good movie, as it reunites Beatty with two of his former co-stars, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn. Keaton made “Reds” with Beatty, and Hawn appeared in “$” also known as “Dollars” and “Shampoo” with Beatty. Co-star Garry Shandling had also appeared with Beatty in “Love Affair.” So, you’ve got a great cast, with supporting turns from Andie MacDowell, Charlton Heston, Nastassja Kinski, and Jenna Elfman. It’s Warren Beatty in a romantic comedy, what could go wrong?

Everything went wrong. The script wasn’t finished at the time filming began, Keaton eventually had to leave to make her movie “Hanging Up,” at which point the movie still wasn’t done, even though production had been going on for about 9 months! When “Town & Country” tested poorly in April of 1999, they re-shot, but the cast couldn’t be reassembled for another 8 months. Because of all the overages and the re-shooting, the budget skyrocketed, going from a relatively modest $35-$40 million to a disastrous $90 million. For a 104-minute romantic comedy! By the time “Town & Country” was finally released in April of 2001, stories had been swirling for years about what an utter fiasco it was, and it opened to bad reviews and indifferent audiences. “Town & Country” grossed $6.7 million domestically, and added a paltry $3.6 million internationally for a grand total of $10.3 million. Against a budget of $90 million. The director, Peter Chelsom, was clearly overmatched by all his actors, especially Beatty. Chelsom never put his foot down with Beatty. So Beatty did his usual thing, the script kept getting revised, and they got way behind schedule. By all accounts, Beatty and Chelsom were like oil and water on the set. All accounts also stress how much time and money Beatty wasted on the set, by insisting that the script be re-written, and by just delaying things endlessly. Beatty knew that he would be the fall guy if anything went wrong with the movie, so why did he act the way he did on the set? Why cause problems? Why not just shut up and play your part and take the money? There’s no easy answer for that. One problem is that “Town & Country” was the first movie Beatty had acted in without also being a producer, director, or screenwriter since 1975’s “The Fortune.” Beatty was used to getting his own way and having final say on a production. You could be charitable to Beatty and say that he was just trying to make the movie as good as possible. And it could well be that Beatty really thought that everything he did was improving “Town & Country.” But Beatty also should have learned from the debacle of making and marketing “Ishtar” that once a movie has a reputation for being a stinker, and once it misses too many release dates, it usually arrives in theaters dead in the water. 

The script for “Town & Country” is pretty awful. As the movie opens, Porter Stoddard (Beatty) is cheating on his wife (Diane Keaton) with an attractive cello player, portrayed by Nastassja Kinski. The audience is never given any reason or rationale for Beatty’s cheating. We don’t see his marriage to Diane Keaton falling apart and we don’t see Kinski seducing him. So there’s no audience sympathy for his character because there’s no explanation or rationale for his actions. Any kind of sympathy or understanding the audience is supposed to have for Beatty’s character is totally lost from the very beginning of the movie. The rest of the movie is basically Beatty trying to hide his cheating from Keaton, and then running into an attractive woman, so he keeps cheating. Hawn and Shandling play a married couple who are Beatty and Keaton’s best friends. During the course of the movie, Shandling discovers that he’s gay and leaves Hawn. Hawn then sleeps with Beatty. Beatty and Shandling have a “boy’s weekend” at a cabin in Aspen, where Beatty meets and seduces Jenna Elfman, who works as a clerk in a hardware store. Beatty also sleeps with Andie MacDowell, who he meets on a plane. At the end of the movie, Beatty pleads for Keaton to take him back, which she somehow does, and at the end of the movie they are back together and it’s clear that they are working things out. Keaton’s character is kind of a cipher, as we don’t get much information about how she sees the disintegration of her marriage to Beatty. And Keaton basically sleepwalks through the part, lending it her patented Annie Hall-like whimsy, but not much else. 

“Town & Country” would have made a little more sense had the film followed Keaton’s character more. And originally it was supposed to. Mike De Luca, an executive at New Line at the time, said of the original script: “they {Beatty and Keaton} come back to each other after they have both been unfaithful. They both have affairs-there’s a balance.” (“Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America,” by Peter Biskind, p. 516.) However, after the script was re-written De Luca says, “One of the biggest changes, and probably the most damaging change, was that we rewrote the script so that Diane’s character has no affairs, and therefore the sympathy for Warren’s character goes right out the window.” (Biskind, p. 517.) Yup! 

It’s really annoying how every single woman in the movie wants to sleep with Warren Beatty. Speaking as a man, a character like Beatty’s is not very sympathetic because most of us don’t have women throwing themselves at our feet everywhere we go. And also, this is not Warren Beatty at the height of his attractiveness in the 1960’s or 1970’s. It’s 60-year-old Warren Beatty in 1998-2001. He’s still a nice-looking older man, but it’s really unrealistic that someone Jenna Elfman’s age is going to pick him up after a couple minutes of flirting with him at a hardware store. Sure, in real life 60-year-old Warren Beatty could probably find lots of women to sleep with, but he’s Warren Beatty, rich, famous and a powerful movie star. The character he’s playing in “Town & Country” isn’t Warren Beatty. “Town & Country” is a very chauvinistic movie. It’s obvious that it was written by men who don’t care a lot about getting inside the heads of the female characters in the movie; they just want to get inside their pants. 

The failure of “Town & Country” and all the negative publicity surrounding it essentially ended Warren Beatty’s film career. As Peter Biskind writes, “Even if Beatty was not to blame, once again a movie in which he was involved left a trail of wreckage in its wake, as had “Dick Tracy,” “Ishtar,” “Bugsy,” “Love Affair,” and “Bulworth.”” (Biskind, p. 542.) The movies that Biskind lists are the 5 movies that Beatty had made prior to “Town & Country,” making it 6 movies in a row that had not ended well for Beatty. Even though “Dick Tracy” was a hit, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg had penned a memo highly critical of Beatty’s directing style, and hinting that all the profits still didn’t make up for the headaches that Beatty caused. Lynn Harris, an executive at New Line who worked closely with Beatty on “Town & Country,” had this to say about Beatty’s personality: “He is at the same time brilliant and creative and amazing, and also oddly self-destructive.” (Biskind, p. 543.) Because Beatty is never able to make up his mind and commit to anything, it’s quite possible that he will never make another movie. There have been stories over the last year that he’s very close to finally making the Howard Hughes biopic that he has talked about for decades. Beatty certainly shares some traits with Howard Hughes-when Hughes was producing movies it took him years to finally finish them. Beatty has also said that he’s interested in revisiting “Dick Tracy.” Hopefully he’ll make another great movie. Beatty’s reputation suffers when compared to his contemporary Clint Eastwood, in part because Eastwood has been so prolific over the years. It helps that Eastwood has had an amazing run of terrific movies over the last decade, which have been big box-office hits and have been showered with awards. Eastwood is also well-known in Hollywood for bringing in all of his movies on time and under budget, which is the exact opposite of the way Beatty works. It also seems that at this time in his life Beatty is very content just being a family man and raising his children. Which is fine, it’s certainly his prerogative to live his life the way he wants to. But it would be great to have one more classic Warren Beatty movie.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, starring Warren Beatty and Vivien Leigh, written by Tennessee Williams (1961)

Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, 1961.

Beatty, Leigh, and Joan Collins play cards on the set.
After making his movie debut in Splendor in the Grass, (1961), Warren Beatty’s second movie was The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which was also released in 1961. But where Splendor had been a triumph, Roman Spring was a flop. Like Splendor, which was written by William Inge, Roman Spring also had an impressive writing pedigree, as it was based on a novel by Tennessee Williams. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was the only movie directed by Jose Quintero, who was most famous as a stage director. Quintero had a lot of success directing the plays of Eugene O’Neill. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone also starred the great actress Vivien Leigh as Mrs. Stone. Leigh was only in her late 40’s when the movie was made, but she was unfortunately very near to the end of her career and life. In the 1950’s she was still starring in many stage productions-mainly opposite her then-husband, Laurence Olivier, but she had not made a film since 1955’s The Deep Blue Sea. Leigh had won two Best Actress Oscars for her iconic roles in Gone With the Wind, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Leigh and Olivier divorced in 1960, just before Leigh filmed Roman Spring. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone would be the second to last movie she appeared in. Her last role was in Ship of Fools in 1965, and she died of tuberculosis in 1967 at the age of 53. 

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone tells the story of an aging actress, Karen Stone, played by Leigh, who is about to take a trip to Rome with her husband. He suffers a heart attack on the plane and dies. She goes on to Rome, rents an apartment, and meets a young Italian gigolo named Paolo, played by Beatty. Although Beatty has the right physical attributes of an attractive young man on the make, he is severely miscast as an Italian. Beatty is not a character actor, and his accent wavers. Defending the casting, screenwriter Gavin Lambert said, “We did look at a couple of Italian actors, but they didn’t have that sort of charisma and sexual dynamism that Warren had.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p. 43.) Well, if they were looking for charisma and sexual dynamism, Warren Beatty certainly had both. Believability as an Italian? Not so much. So Mrs. Stone and Paolo have an affair, and she falls in love with him. But Paolo only loves himself, and his attention soon turns towards a young starlet, played by Jill St. John. A theme throughout the movie is the mysterious young man who stands on the street outside Mrs. Stone’s apartment and stares up at her. Who is he? What does he want? Paolo has a speech at some point in the movie where he talks to Mrs. Stone about a young man coming up to her apartment, making love to her, and then killing her. (Oddly enough, Beatty has an identical speech about going to a woman’s apartment, making love to her, and then killing her in his next movie, All Fall Down.) Paolo leaves Mrs. Stone, and at the end of the movie we see her throw her apartment keys to the mysterious young man in the street. He enters her apartment and we fade out, and presumably he makes love to her and then kills her. Wait, what? Why does Mrs. Stone effectively commit suicide? I have no idea. Part of the ridiculousness of the movie now, 50 years later, is that Mrs. Stone isn’t that old. Sure, maybe in the early 1960’s she seemed old, but now? She’s nearing 50, and in today’s culture that’s not old. People nearing 50 still have a ton of life left in them. So the idea that she’s just embracing death and waiting to die seems rather silly. 

Personally, I think The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a very unsuccessful movie. I just wasn’t invested in these characters at all. Paolo is a jerk, and very unsympathetic. And I didn’t really care what happened to Mrs. Stone, either. Although I certainly didn’t want her to be killed by the creepy stalker guy. Ugh, such a depressing and senseless ending. There’s not much dramatic tension in the story, there’s nothing moving it forward or giving the story any sense of urgency. Will Mrs. Stone keep sleeping with the jerky gigolo with the wavering accent? I don’t really care!

Leigh gives a good performance, and she does the most she can with the material. Beatty is miscast, and the whole Italian accent just had him hamstrung from the very beginning. Also weighing against Beatty is the fact that Paolo is a totally unsympathetic character. There’s no reason for the audience to like him. Beatty is also at his best when there’s some comedy in a script, and there’s no comedy in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.

Beatty actively campaigned for the role of Paolo, perhaps in an attempt to play a very different kind of character from Bud Stamper, the role he played in Splendor in the Grass. Beatty even went so far as to fly to Puerto Rico to convince Tennessee Williams to cast him. Beatty says, “I thought, An Italian, he should be darker than I was, so I got something called Man-Tan. You put it on your face and you turned a sort of an orange-yellow. I found an Italian with an accent. I worked with him for two days. I got what I considered to be an Italian suit. I put on the suit. I put on the Man-Tan. I put on the accent, and I flew to San Juan.” Beatty then found Williams gambling in the hotel. Williams was recovering from ulcers, and Beatty told a waiter to bring Williams a glass of milk. As Beatty says, “In those days, they treated ulcers with milk. My father had ulcers, and he drank milk all the time, which, by the way, is the worst thing you can do. Milk is very irritating to the mucus membrane of the stomach.” (Biskind, p. 43.) Williams told Beatty that he had the part. It’s rather funny to imagine Beatty, with his fake tan and phony accent, trying to convince Williams to cast him. I’m sure that Beatty’s good looks and charm helped him immensely.

At the time Roman Spring was filmed, Beatty was engaged to the British starlet Joan Collins, but their relationship was nearing its end. Vivien Leigh apparently didn’t care for Collins appearing on the set, as Leigh had a crush on Beatty. The card game pictured above with Beatty, Leigh, and Collins must have been a tense one! Did Beatty and Leigh have an affair? There are rumors they did, but there’s not much evidence beyond hearsay to support it. Beatty himself had only kind things to say about Leigh: “Well that was a childhood crush and it never became any other way…she was a lovely person, a terrific lady, made me feel immensely important, and she was beautiful to look at.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p. 253.) As a young man, Beatty really went out of his way to cultivate friendships with older people-like director Elia Kazan, playwright William Inge, and author Clifford Odets. While one could be cynical and say that Beatty was merely making these connections in order to further his own career, it seems clear to me that he looked up to these men as role models. Sure, they might have helped him get work, but he was also looking to them for advice about life. Making the movie The Only Game in Town just so he could work with the great director George Stevens is an example of this. Stevens was past his prime, and The Only Game in Town was neither a great script nor a good movie, so it really took something on Beatty’s part to accept the role just to learn from Stevens. Beatty was obviously at ease around older people, even as a young man. But his respect for his elders and his affection for Vivien Leigh didn’t stop him from being constantly late to the set. Director Jose Quintero said, “Out of what I can only imagine to be insecurity, he was arrogant and huffy to Vivien. He kept people waiting.” (Finstad, p. 253.) Ah, the contradiction that is Warren Beatty! I would guess that Quintero hit the nail on the head; Beatty probably was insecure, especially sharing most of his scenes with a legend like Vivien Leigh. Again, as I said in my post about All Fall Down, this isn’t meant to excuse Beatty’s behavior, but just to try and understand it. He may have felt insecure opposite Vivien Leigh, as she was a veteran actress who had been married to Laurence Olivier, considered the greatest actor of the 20th century, and here’s Beatty, touted as the “next big thing,” and he’s only made one movie which hasn’t even been released yet. Leigh probably had no idea who he was when he was cast in the role, and she probably hadn’t seen any footage from Splendor in the Grass, so she had no idea how good of an actor Beatty was. Also, Beatty probably knew he was in over his head, playing a part with an accent he couldn’t master, with a not-so-great script. 

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was released in late December, 1961, just two months after Splendor in the Grass came out. Anyone who saw Splendor and who was hoping to see more of the magnetic young actor who seemed like the next James Dean must have been disappointed if they saw Roman Spring.

Two incidental notes that I found interesting about Beatty at this time: In my last post about McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I joked that it was a good thing that Beatty never worked with Stanley Kubrick, another perfectionist famed for shooting numerous takes. Well, I read that while shooting Roman Spring in England, Beatty hung out a lot with Kubrick, who was shooting Lolita at the same studio. Later, in 1963, when Beatty was trying to make What’s New, Pussycat? he tried to persuade Kubrick to direct it. But that project fell apart for Beatty, and he ended up not being cast in the movie. 

Shortly after filming Roman Spring, Beatty spent an evening with the Italian director Luchino Visconti, who apparently wanted Beatty to play a part in his movie The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster. The part that Visconti wanted Beatty for was eventually played by Alain Delon, which makes perfect sense, since Delon is basically the French Warren Beatty.

The Films of Warren Beatty-"McCabe & Mrs. Miller," starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, Directed by Robert Altman (1971)

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller."

Beatty and director Robert Altman in a lighter moment on the set.

Warren Beatty as McCabe.

Robert Altman’s 1971 western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the title roles, is one of the director’s best-known movies. Largely unsuccessful when originally released, it has since gained a considerable critical following. Personally, I found it less than compelling, although there are impressive moments in the movie.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is set in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, and tells the story of John McCabe, (Beatty) a gambler who comes to the frontier town of Presbyterian Church and starts a brothel. Soon afterwards a professional madam, Mrs. Miller (Christie) comes to town and offers to run the brothel for McCabe. He agrees, and they become business partners. Eventually, McCabe falls in love with her. McCabe’s brothel becomes more and more successful, and a mining company wants to buy him out. McCabe refuses to sell, and does not heed the warning that he will be killed if he refuses to sell. Eventually gunmen come to the town to kill McCabe, and he battles them in a snowstorm, killing all of them, but not before being mortally wounded. McCabe then dies in a snowbank.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is a dark, drab, and dreary movie. It’s definitely an “anti-western” movie, as Altman plays with and subverts many of the conventions of the genre. There’s nothing romantic about either of the lead characters, or the town they’re in. The unglamorous tone of the movie is probably closer to reality than most of the “classic” Hollywood westerns. One of my biggest problems with the movie is the almost inaudible sound mix. It’s extremely hard to understand what anyone is saying, especially at the beginning of the movie. I know that overlapping dialogue was one of Altman's trademarks as a director, but here it’s used very ineffectively. The sound makes it hard to get into the movie. It’s difficult to figure out what’s going on and who the characters are. When he first saw the movie, Beatty was very annoyed at the sound mix, saying, “The sound in the first couple of reels, in which one would ordinarily expect that the exposition would be laid down and had to be clear, was not clear. That sort of irritated me.” (“Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America,” by Peter Biskind, p. 163.) 

Beatty gives an excellent performance as McCabe. Beatty hides his handsomeness under a bushy beard, a giant fur coat, and a derby hat. He also sports a gold tooth. For someone who is so famously vain, Beatty certainly doesn’t mind looking like an idiot when the part calls for it. McCabe has a reputation as a gunfighter, even though it’s probably more likely that he has exaggerated his tales. McCabe is a dreamer, a visionary, which means he fits in with just about every other character that Beatty has played. McCabe is also very persuasive and charming, just like Clyde Barrow and Bugsy Siegel, the other outlaws Beatty has played. Unlike Barrow and Siegel, McCabe is not a sociopath. McCabe is a blowhard. He’s a great talker, just like Beatty. My favorite moment is Beatty’s monologue in the middle of the movie where he’s analyzing himself and his relationship with Mrs. Miller. It’s a very funny scene, and shows what a great comic actor Beatty is. Beatty said in an interview, “I like to play schmucks. Cocky schmucks. Guys who think they know it all but don’t. It’s been the story of my life to think I knew what I was talking about and later find out that I didn’t.” Beatty found similarities between McCabe and Clyde Barrow, saying, “They were not heroes. I found that to be funny, and Altman found it to be funny; we really agreed on that.” (Biskind, p. 151.) 

Julie Christie does a good job as Mrs. Miller, and she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress. Beatty and Christie were a real-life couple at the time “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was made, and this was their first film together. (They would later star in “Shampoo” and “Heaven Can Wait” together.) There’s not a ton of chemistry between Beatty and Christie, but that’s not really the point of the movie. The soundtrack is made up of songs by Leonard Cohen, which, although anachronistic, fit the slow, melancholy nature of the movie perfectly. The songs that are in the movie are actually from Cohen’s first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” from 1967, but they fit the movie so well that one might think that Cohen had written them especially for the movie. Cohen’s song “The Stranger Song,” with its references to gambling and card dealing fits McCabe’s character very well. The climactic shootout during the snowstorm is very well done. It’s a very long sequence, and there’s no music on the soundtrack during it, which just makes it more tense and suspenseful. 

Beatty and Altman didn’t get along, as their perspectives on filmmaking were total opposites. Altman preferred spontaneity and encouraged the actors to improvise their dialogue, while Beatty, ever the perfectionist, wanted take after take to choose from. Anne Sidaris, Altman’s assistant, said that Altman tended to manipulate actors into giving the performance he wanted. “I think he had trouble manipulating Warren, because Warren’s pretty strong-minded. Warren knew who he was, and that made him a different challenge.” (“Warren Beatty: A Private Man,” by Suzanne Finstad, p. 398.) Beatty said, “I believe in improvising, but I don’t believe in improvising from nothing. So I had to write a script...I worked quite a bit more on the script than he [Altman] did…My approach was more linear…I wrote most of the scenes that I was in.” (Biskind, p. 151.) Beatty was angered when he didn’t receive any writing credit on the movie, and Altman did. In the understatement of the century department, Altman said of Beatty, “Warren is basically a control freak. He wants to run the show.” (Biskind, p. 154.) The only thing that’s surprising about Beatty’s move into directing is that he didn’t start directing sooner. Beatty wouldn’t start directing until 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait,” which he actually co-directed with Buck Henry. Or, rather, Buck Henry got a co-directing credit, as Beatty initially wasn’t sure he could direct by himself, but Beatty quickly took over and shoved Henry to the side. Beatty and Altman clashed about how many takes to shoot, and at one point, Altman left the set at the end of the day and simply let Beatty and the crew shoot until Warren was happy. Beatty defended his perfectionism, saying, “A lot of times, Bob would wonder why I was working so hard. I’m just a person that thinks, when you go to all that trouble to set up a movie and build a set and get dressed and go there, I don’t see any harm in doing a number of takes.” (Biskind, p. 154.) Of course, Beatty doesn’t say how many “a number” is. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty takes? It’s a good thing that Beatty never worked with Stanley Kubrick; they might have never finished filming! 

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is a very interesting movie, if not a totally successful one. If you’re a fan of Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, or Julie Christie you should see it. Just remember to turn up the volume.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Movie Review: "Caught," starring Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason, and Robert Ryan (1949)

Robert Ryan, Barbara Bel Geddes, and James Mason in "Caught."
I recently watched a very good old movie, “Caught,” from 1949. It’s one of the few Hollywood films directed by Max Ophuls, a German director who moved to the United States during World War II. “Caught” is a film noir based on the novel “Wild Calendar,” by Libbie Block. Personally, I think “Wild Calendar” would have made a much better title than “Caught,” but that’s just me. “Caught” stars Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan, and James Mason in his first American film.

Bel Geddes plays Leonora Eames, a working girl in LA who is trying to land a wealthy guy. As the film opens, she and her roommate are paging through a high-class fashion magazine, daydreaming about what clothes and furs they would buy if they had the money. Leonora scrimps and saves to take charm school classes so she will have a chance to move up the social ladder. Through modeling at a department store, she gets invited to a party thrown in honor of Smith Ohlrig, a very rich businessman. Despite the fact that she has a chance to go to this party, when the time comes she hems and haws and is very reluctant to actually go. But she does, and she comes face to face with Smith Ohlrig himself, played by Robert Ryan. He drives her around LA, and she is interested in him, but when Ohlrig takes her to his house, she demands that he take her home. Ohlrig likes that she does not fall for him too easily, and he quickly proposes to her after just a few more dates. She says yes, although she soon learns that marriage to Ohlrig is not as great as it might seem to be. Ohlrig quickly proves to be a cruel man who doesn’t really care about Leonora’s feelings. All he’s interested in is making money, and to him Leonora is merely another possession that he now owns.

After a big fight with Ohlrig, Leonora leaves him and their home on Long Island. She finds work in New York City as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. There are two doctors in the practice, and one of them is James Mason, playing Larry Quinada, a pediatrician. Quinada is a hard worker, providing health care for poor families who often can’t pay for his services. He is dedicated and demands excellence from Leonora. Leonora conceals her identity as Ohlrig’s wife from Quinada, and he doesn’t recognize her. Leonora throws herself into her work and greatly enjoys it. She admires Dr. Quinada’s hardworking attitude, and it’s clear that they care for each other quite a bit. Leonora briefly goes back to Ohlrig, which leads to her getting pregnant. Quinada and Leonora have a really cute sort-of date where they go to a bar and go dancing, and Quinada makes it clear that he has feelings for her, still not knowing that she’s married. Eventually all is revealed, leading to a showdown at Ohlrig’s Long Island mansion. Ohlrig is ready to fight Quinada, but Quinada says that it’s Leonora’s decision to make about who she wants to be with. Leonora stays with Ohlrig in the mansion, but he says some terrible things about using the child to keep her married to him, and that she will never be free of him. Later that night he suffers a heart attack as he plays pinball. Leonora sees him on the floor in pain, and he begs her to get help, but she delays. At the climax of the movie, Leonora goes into labor, the baby is stillborn, and Leonora is now free to divorce Ohlrig and marry Dr. Quinada. A happy ending, but not without its price.

Bel Geddes, Ryan and Mason are perfectly cast in their parts. It was nice for me to finally see Bel Geddes in a film besides “Vertigo,” which I’ve seen many times. She’s very pretty in “Caught,” but she’s not a glamour girl. She looks like someone you might actually meet in real life. And her acting seems more natural than other actresses of the time. She does a great job at expressing Leonora’s changing emotions during the course of the film. Ryan is excellent as the cold, uncaring Ohlrig. The character of Smith Ohlrig was reportedly based on Howard Hughes. It’s difficult for me to see exactly what characteristics of Hughes’s are supposed to show up in Smith Ohlrig. An important thing for modern viewers to note is that in 1949 Howard Hughes was still a pretty dashing figure, he was the owner of RKO Studios, and just two years earlier had flown his famous “Spruce Goose” airplane. Hughes had not yet retreated from public life and become the subject of tabloid speculation and ridicule. Smith Ohlrig is not collecting his urine in jars and wearing tissue boxes on his feet. I guess what Ohlrig seems to have in common with Hughes is a very focused/obsessed work ethic, and a habit of keeping very late hours. Also, both Hughes and Ohlrig employed a full time movie projectionist. Robert Ryan was under contract to RKO at the time “Caught” was made, and according to Robert Osborne on TCM, actually asked Hughes if he could base his portrayal of Ohlrig on Hughes. Hughes told Ryan that was fine with him, which seems a surprising thing for Hughes to say, given that Ohlrig is clearly the villain of the movie. Maybe Ryan didn’t stress that point to Hughes. Ryan was certainly the right physical type to play Hughes, with his dark hair, and tall and lanky build. (Ryan and Hughes were both 6’4”.) Ryan’s towering height also works to the advantage of the storyline, as it emphasizes Ohlrig’s power over Leonora. I haven’t seen a lot of Robert Ryan’s films, but I’m very impressed with what I have seen him in. It sounds like Robert Ryan was a really nice guy in real life who happened to be very good at playing bad guys. His performance in “The Naked Spur” is excellent, and definitely worth checking out. Also, Robert Ryan sublet his apartment in the Dakota to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, so he must have been an awesome guy. (John and Yoko bought the apartment after Ryan died.) 

James Mason is very good as the kind-hearted Dr. Quinada, and it’s a lot of fun to see him playing such a nice guy and a sympathetic character for a change. Although Mason was such a good actor he could make even a villainous character sympathetic. I’m a big fan of James Mason, and, speaking of villainous characters, his performance as Brutus in “Julius Caesar” is definitely one of his career highlights. Mason really should have been nominated for an Oscar for “Julius Caesar” rather than Marlon Brando. Brando does a fine job as Mark Antony, but he should have been nominated as a Supporting Actor rather than Leading Actor, as Mason has much more screen time. Mason was a huge star in England during the 1940’s, appearing in many successful films like “The Man in Grey,” and “The Seventh Veil.” Mason found his greatest success in England playing sadistic, aristocratic types in period dramas, and women loved him. Or loved to hate him, or hated that they loved him, or something like that. Mason cut a handsome figure on screen, with his thick, dark hair, his sad and expressive dark eyes, his brooding countenance, and of course his beautiful voice. Mason’s voice could suggest either friendly openness or chilling cruelty, and he truly made the most of his fantastic instrument. Mason was a pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War II, which somehow didn’t affect his popularity at the British box office. It was quite a big deal when Mason left England for Hollywood in 1946, after writing some articles that were critical of the British film industry. Mason was a very outspoken man, and had a knack for pissing people off during this period. Mason’s films had also been very popular in the United States, and in 1947 there were 35 James Mason fan clubs throughout the country! After arriving in America, however, Mason didn’t work for 18 months. But during that lull he was mentioned in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 movie “Rope.” While the characters are discussing movies, one of the women in the movie says something like, “Well, the man I’m simply crazy about is that James Mason.” At least someone was reminding the nation’s moviegoers about James Mason. He finally landed the role of Dr. Quinada in “Caught,” giving Americans their first look at Mason in a Hollywood movie.

Mason felt it might have been a mistake to play a good guy in his first American movie, as he later said of “Caught”: “I desperately wanted to get away from the bad guy image, not realizing at the time that if an actor is lucky enough to have a recognizable persona, he should stick to it…to be a successful film star, as distinct from a successful actor, you should settle for an image-just as people like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart or James Stewart did-and polish it for all it is worth.” (“The Films of James Mason,” by Clive Hirschhorn, 1975, p. 22.) While I can understand Mason’s point, and I think that in general he is quite correct, it’s lucky for audiences that Mason chose so many different and varied parts, as he truly allowed us to see the full range of his talents. 

“Caught” is a very fine movie, and definitely worth seeing if you’re a fan of Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason, or Robert Ryan. It’s also an interesting film as it presents the audiences with a female protagonist and the rather limited life choices she had at the time. Ophuls’ direction is excellent; there are lots of great camera angles and impressive tracking shots. Personally, I really enjoy technical “tricks” such as long tracking shots, as I think they make movies so much more interesting to watch. Keep your eyes on the great camera angle during the riveting scene in Ohlrig’s mansion when Ryan obsessively ricochets billiard balls around the pool table as Bel Geddes pours her heart out to him.

I’ll close with the poem that James Mason penned about Ophuls and his love of tracking shots:
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old 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.