Underrated Movie #118: Caught

Title: Caught
Year: 1949
Director: Max Ophuls (La Ronde)
Writer: Arthur Laurents (supposedly from the novel “Wild Calendar” by Libbie Block)
Stars: Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason, Robert Ryan

The Story: A poor young women flips through a fashion magazine, wondering how she’ll ever get a mink coat. She gets her chance by marrying a dead-eyed tycoon who treats her like furniture. She finds the courage to flee her trap, taking a meager secretary job for a downwardly-mobile pediatrician. But she doesn’t suspect that she’s caught in more ways that one…

How it Came to be Underrated: Ophuls started and ended his career in Europe, only coming to America for a few years of very underrated movies.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Arthur Laurents (Rope, the books for “Gypsy” and “West Side Story”) died earlier this month at 92 and did great work right up to the end. For this movie, neither he nor Ophuls were happy with the book they were assigned. Instead, they would trade stories of the wickedness of Howard Hughes, who had screwed both of them earlier in their careers. They decided to turn this into a barbed portrait of people like Hughes (Ryan’s ice-cold-hate at its best) and the damage they cause.
  2. Girl-next-door Bel Geddes was great in movies like Vertigo, but she rarely got a chance to star. It’s ironic that she finally got to shine in a movie about a fashion model, which wasn’t her look at all, but Ophuls knew what he was doing. There’s no worse case of “miscasting” in Hollywood history than The Graduate, which was written for Robert Redford, who would have made so much more sense, given that the character’s parents are WASPs and everybody treats him like a big hunk. But they brilliantly cast nebbish-y newcomer Dustin Hoffman instead, because they understood that you don’t cast for how the character would actually look, you cast for how they feel. This character in Caught should probably look like Marilyn Monroe, but she feels mousy, so they cast mousy.
  3. This is a one of the first and best movies about the problem that dared not speak its name. Ophuls captures the cruel trap of snide assumptions: When you marry above your station, everyone assumes that you did it for mercenary reasons, but no one will say that out loud, which means that you’ll never have a chance to defend yourself. Bel Geddes is “living the dream”, so no one will believe her that it’s a nightmare. Every time she tries to tell anybody about her despair, they tell her to buy a new hat.
  4. A girl ruins her life to get a mink, which becomes a badge of shame, then she freezes rather than wear it, then makes her peace with a cloth coat: the symbol of humility. What a strange status symbol the mink coat was... Aside from the dead animal issues, they certainly weren’t flattering to anybody’s figure. And weren’t they hot?? Were these girls always cold? Was that the problem?

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two other great American movies by Ophuls are The Reckless Moment and Letter From an Unknown Woman. Another great proto-feminist noir is My Name is Julia Ross.

How Available Is It?: I featured this before on my round-up of unavailable movies, but now I’m happy to say that it’s available to watch instantly. As you can see from these stills, the print is a little soft, but watchable. Ophuls’s always-lush cinematography comes through.

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Underrated Movie #101: La Ronde

Title: La Ronde
Year: 1950
Director: Max Ophuls
Writers: Jacques Natanson and Max Ophuls from the play by Arthur Schnitzler
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Daniel Gelin, Danielle Darrieux, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Jean-Louis Barrault, Isa Miranda, Gerard Philipe

The Story: Ophuls adapts Arthur Schnitzler’s perpetually shocking 1900 play, about a chain of duplicitous sexual encounters, taking us though every level of Vienna’s hierarchy and back again. Along the way he artfully dissects the language of desire without ever chilling its basic naughtiness.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was hard to find on VHS and not on DVD at all until recently. Ophuls has generally suffered from poor availability on DVD.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Ophuls is famous for long, sumptuous travelling shots, but these camera moves don’t convey the lyrical freedom that other directors might create, since we often begin and end on baroque compositions, in which characters are claustrophobically enmeshed in a dense collage of objects and shadows. The result enforces the theme: the ways in which liberation itself can be a mousetrap.
  2. It’s shocking how little has changed in the world of seduction in 110 years, despite several sexual revolutions and counter-revolutions. Schinitzler and Ophuls explore the central paradox of civilization: all of the rules seem to be set up to empower men and disempower women, and yet men are always trying to flee from those rules while women are always trying to enforce them, so something must not be as it seems.
  3. The encounters are fleeting, and at first they seem as meaningless to us as they are to the lovers, but soon their meaning deepens through sly repetition. We see a lover innocently offer a protestation once, and believe them, then they repeat the line just as innocently in the next encounter, and this time we’re shocked at their audacity. Soon, we hear another lover say a similar line for the first time and we instantly suspect them, too. The film takes us from innocence, to cynicism and back around again to the non-judgmental magnanimity of the worldly-wise.
  4. One of the ways in which Schnitzler’s later interpreters dared not be as “modern” as he was in 1900 is clear from the fact that this is one of the few stage adaptations that was intentionally made stagier on film than it ever was on the actual stage, just to give us some distance from the hothouse goings-on. Ophuls adds Walbrook’s character, a puckishly self-aware narrator wandering backstage from set to set who gives us some philosophical perspective (and crucially gives us something to cut away to, something Ophuls obviously has to do often…)
  5. Of course, I talked before about the problem with filmmakers who use post-modernism as an excuse to not ask their audience to feel anything, but this movie puts a twist on that. It’s all about how the post-modern condition of cosmopolitan life inhibits our ability to feel. We see how every lover feels they must pretend to be someone they’re not, which is the only real punishment for their promiscuity, because it means that no one ever gets to enjoy themselves half as much as they would if they could just own up to their own desire.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Ophuls is best remembered for his European movies, and his American movies can be hard to find, but they’re well worth tracking down, especially Letter From An Unknown Woman and Caught.

How Available Is It?: The Criterion Collection has finally blessed us with a fine DVD, complete with a commentary and several video essays that illuminate Ophuls’s techniques.

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