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Caught (Blu-ray Review)

21 Jul, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan.

Even on paper, director Max Ophuls’ trademark fluid camera under the service of kingpin cinematographer Lee Garmes suggests a payoff on the Orson Welles-Gregg Toland level in terms of our being able to see every last molecule in the image, or close to it. And with Caught’s plot-central Kane-like mansion photographed with Toland-ish or even Toland-times-2 deep focus, the supposition turns out to be true in a movie that has always been a personal favorite of mine ever since NYU Prof. William K. Everson ran it for me and my fellow film students in his apartment one summer night in 1970. Barbara Bel Geddes’ character is caught all right, both in an unimaginably dreadful marriage and between two men of wildly contrasting personalities.

Released by MGM in a pickup deal with short-lived Enterprise Productions Inc., this was the latter enterprise’s final endeavor before going under. And wouldn’t you know: This picture and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (another commercial lost cause from this collaboration) both hold up as well as — and seem more cinematically progressive than — any in-house MGM drama of the same era this side of The Asphalt Jungle. Here’s another example of what used to be called a “woman’s picture,” yet there’s some red meat to go around due to the Robert Ryan character, who is so close to Howard Hughes in conception that Hughes loaned his RKO contract player to the production and (per the AFI Catalog for the ‘40s) secretly arranged to daily rushes. Hughes apparently didn’t mind seeing himself as the basis of a first-rate movie creep.

Beyond Caught’s visual prowess, there’s a fairly strong screenplay by Arthur Laurents, no less — at least until it goes a little haywire in the final 10 minutes due to restrictions imposed by all those repressed lads at the Catholic Legion of Decency, who’ve hopefully “gone South” in the afterlife. Bel Geddes plays a relatively low-end fashion model and former carhop who gets a taste of glamour that would have a lot of superficial appeal to other women in her position — one that finds her struggling to pay for the modest tuition at a local charm school she hopes will give her some polish. Meanwhile, a yacht party needs some women — or at least a woman — which enables her to meet enigmatic millionaire Ryan, who impulsively marries her basically because his psychiatrist strongly suggests that doing so wouldn’t be a percentage move. All but immediately, Ryan leaves her in miserable solitude inside his cavernous Long Island digs — her only company being a nice-guy lackey (more or less out of The Great Gatsby) who hangs around playing the piano.

Forced to take any kind of work just to escape the premises, Bel Geddes ends up in the pediatric office of a struggling-by-choice physician played by James Mason in his first American screen role, though he would soon star for Ophuls again (at this point going by “Opuls” in the credits) in the same year’s equally memorable The Reckless Moment. Mason works in one of those poverty-area New York offices where every kid who comes in is either noisy or one who has an aged-before-her-time mother. Mason pegs his aspiring hire for a rich dilettante from her posh Long Island address and only after a long back-and-forth agrees to hire her as an assistant.

Thus begins a contest of wills between the two men, and in one shot I’ve never forgotten, Bel Geddes is in one scene positioned in a visual triangle with each member of the acting trio serving as one of the points. A cynical observer from today might throw up his or her hands and wonder why Bel Geddes can’t tough it out reaping fruits of the so-called good life back at the mansion. Then again, Ryan has never been equaled or, to my mind even approached, at portraying off-his-trolley sociopaths. And his performance here is equal to any of the creepily convincing film noir thugs he played in a great string of malevolent roles commencing with the one in 1947’s Crossfire (that one Oscar-nominated) and extending at least through his nasty portrayal of master-of-arms Claggart in Peter Ustinov’s underappreciated movie of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

You don’t have to be much of an eagle-eye to spot Barbara Billingsley in at bit at one of the modeling sessions, and it occurred to me that she was so much a Bel Geddes type herself that it might have impaired her career. Of course, even with Hitchcock’s Vertigo and TV’s “Dallas” also on her resume, one can debate whether originating Maggie the Cat in the Broadway original of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Bel Geddes) trumps playing June Cleaver and “speaking jive” in Airplane!  (Billingsley). But we live in a pluralistic society, and it’s grand to know there was room enough for both.

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