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.


Anonymous said...

Great write up about the film, which I've just watched. Loved it but Ohlrig definitely doesn't die at the end. Both his doctors and James Mason's character state that he is okay and that he will live. Just thought I'd mention it.

Mark said...

Thanks for the comment! I'm not sure how I missed those lines. I've corrected the post, thanks again for letting me know.

Anonymous said...

Possibly the most stressful film I've ever seen is Beware My Lovely starring Robert Ryan.