One of the greatest and strangest noirs ever made, 1949’s CAUGHT, directed by the brilliant Max Ophuls, comes to Blu-Ray in a stunning 1080p edition, thanks to the trench coat-wearing cineastes at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
The plot takes the genre basics (lust, obsession, fear, violence), and frenetically shakes ’em up into a surrealistic cocktail of crazy, replete with a stalker chaser. Leonora Eames is as beautiful as she is smart, savvy, and compassionate – or so she thinks. The independent woman is roomies with Maxine, a model who wants to bring her into the fold. Together, they end up at a charm school that doubles as an agency. In addition to official gigs, the girls are loaned out for human decor at high society parties. When the two apartment sharers get a special invite, Maxine licks her lips; this is the snare trap she’s been waiting for – to marry rich. Leonora is more cautious (“I don’t want to go to a party where I have to look out for myself”). Nevertheless, she is reluctantly kvetched into attending.
The soiree turns out to underline Leonora’s worst fears – a veritable nest of bullshit artists and sexual predators. Making a mad dash for the exit, she practically collides with a seemingly male counterpart. The mysterious fellow escapee strikes up a conversation with the fleeing woman, and soon the pair are thick as thieves. For her, he seems genuine; for him, it’s love at first sight – beauty and brains, something he thought he’d never see. Unbeknownst to Leonora, she has inadvertently made the superficial catch of a lifetime. The moody hunk is Smith Ohlrig, a Howard Hughesian millionaire, notorious for his stable of women. But, for Smith, this time is different (that beauty and brains thing is really gnawing at him). She, in turn, feels that he has been misjudged by a jealous and vindictive media. Each is about to commit to a match from hell.
And so they were married…
Wedded bliss lasts about ten seconds after the honeymoon. Leonora’s position as Mrs. Ohlrig is essentially a paid companion at best, a prisoner at worst. She appears at male-dominated mansion gatherings, is never asked to speak or express an opinion, and is often (it is implied) violated to salve her spouse’s carnal urges. Soon, “the girl who has everything” is contemplating suicide (divorce is unthinkable, and, since the place is heavily patrolled/populated by body guards and slimy lackeys, she’d never get away with murder).
Time for Leonora Eames-Ohlrig to think outside the box.
She masterminds a vanishing act that is as ingenious as it is simple via relocation to a tenement (correctly assuming that within Ohlrig’s crowd no one with her access to money would ever even consider such a thing). Leonora takes a job as a receptionist for two struggling GPs, and excels in people skills far beyond her assimilation goals. In a matter of weeks, the younger of the two doctors, emigre Larry Quinada, is feeling the urge to merge.
Meanwhile, Smith’s goons and private detectives have been combing the city, and eventually strike pay dirt. The final confrontation involving this lethal triangle explodes into one lulu of a frenzied climax (oh, and did we mention that Leonora’s pregnant?).
CAUGHT is about the closest thing you’ll ever get to a foreign art house movie made in 1940’s Golden Age Hollywood. It’s one of those wonderful Enterprise pictures, filmed independently through actor John Garfield’s company, and distributed through (of all places) MGM. Suffice to say, Louis B. Mayer loathed this movie (as he did with most Enterprise productions), which is, in and of itself, about the highest recommendation I can think of. Even the cast is unusual. Barbara bel Geddes, in one of her few leading roles, is amazing as Leonora. As the sawbones pining for her, James Mason (recently of The Seventh Veil and Odd Man Out) aces Hollywood. And, as the psychotic Smith Ohlrig, Robert Ryan is simultaneously sympathetic and terrifying; it’s a tailor-made role for the fantastic thespian. The rest of the cast is tremendous as well, and includes Natalie Schafer (perfect, as the head of the charm school), Frank Ferguson, Curt Bois, Barbara Billingsley, Art Smith and Dorothy Christy.
The other credits are major in all aspects from cinematography (Lee Garmes, Josef von Sternberg’s favorite d.p.) to scripting (Arthur Laurents, screen author of Hitchcock’s Rope and the book to West Side Story; adapting his screenplay from Libbie Block’s novel, Wild Calendar) to scoring (Frederich Hollander). The movie was produced by Wolfgang Reinhardt, son of the celebrated Max Reinhardt.
Best of all is the aforementioned German-born French director, Max Ophuls (billed as “Opuls”), on a brief working tour of the American motion picture industry. While only here two short years, he nevertheless made four remarkable movies (CAUGHT was the third) that have yet to be equaled for their inventiveness and long-reaching influence (he would work again with Mason later that year in the fantastic noir The Reckless Moment).
CAUGHT is the film noir that’ll certainly catch you with its modern feminist approach to dealing with sexual harassment and assault that too often gets a pass from the “boy’s club” of the unentitled entitled. It’s intelligent “deep dish” cinema insidiously disguised (and succeeding) as entertainment. Besides, how many movies offer (almost) death by pinball machine?
CAUGHT. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Melange Pictures/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT # OF790. SRP: $29.95.