Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Caught (Enterprise-MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Caught, a 1949 film noir made at the short-lived Enterprise Studio, which had a major-studio distribution deal through MGM and involved John Garfield (who was the star of their one major hit, Body and Soul), Charles Boyer and Ginger Rogers (though I don’t think La Ginger ever actually made a film for them) as well as David Loew of the Loew family, founders of MGM’s parent company, as their principal financial backer. Future director Robert Aldrich, who worked as an assistant director and production manager at Enterprise, recalled to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse, “The studio’s main problem was that it had one hit and about nine disasters. The hit was Body and Soul. It cost a million dollars more than it should have because [director] Robert Rossen was given his head.”

By the time Enterprise produced Caught for director Max Ophuls (embarrassingly spelled “Opuls” on his credit!) they had blown their seed capital on a big film called Arch of Triumph, based on an Erich Maria Remarque novel and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Milestone recalled the experience in his own Celluloid Muse interview: “The basic mistake … was that the script was much too long. I wanted to shorten it, but they refused because they were anxious to duplicate the success of the nearly four-hour long Gone With the Wind, which had just been reissued. … [But] by the time the picture was finished, the bottom had fallen out of the market and they no longer wanted four-hour pictures, so we had to cut the damned thing down to the more conventional two hours, which is easier to do on paper than on celluloid.” Arch of Triumph cost $4 million in 1948 dollars, and as a result Enterprise declared bankruptcy while Caught was still shooting.

During the shoot Ophuls got shingles and John Berry replaced him — and according to Aldrich, the expectation at the studio was that Berry was going to be allowed to finish the film, whereby the management and the banks that were their principal creditors had decided that Berry was going to shoot only until Ophuls was healthy enough to work, and then Ophuls would take over. “As studio manager I had to go and tell Berry, my friend, that he was fired,” Aldrich recalled. “I couldn’t tell him then — I told him about a year afterwards — why he was fired. It was a very unpleasant period. I would guess that between a third and a half of the finished film is Berry’s. He had been dealt with in a very shabby fashion.” Then, four or five months later, the film needed retakes and Aldrich recalled he got his revenge on Ophuls “because the bank had vested in me much of the power of deciding what retakes to do or not to do. I never got even for the injustice Mr. Berry had suffered, but it was a pleasant two days.” (Interestingly, Caught doesn’t look like a film that had two directors; the visual and dramatic style seems consistent throughout.)

Written by Arthur Laurents (who’s still alive: at 93 he recently pulled the plug on a proposed remake of the musical Gypsy, to have starred Barbra Streisand, by withdrawing the right to use his original book) from a novel called Wild Calendar by one Libbie Block (a writer I’ve otherwise never heard of), Caught is famous for having a principal character — a nearly psychopathic rich man named Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) — at least loosely based on Howard Hughes. The film starts in a cheap room shared by Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) and a roommate, in which they’re looking at the ads for jewelry and furs in a fashion magazine and fantasizing being rich enough to afford all that stuff. Leonora — the first name is one she’s assumed herself because it seems to have more cachet than the one her parents gave her — is saving enough money to attend the charm school run by Dorothy Dale (Natalie Schaefer), and one day while she’s working as a clothing model in an upscale department store she’s approached by Franzi (Curt Bois), who invites her to a party being given by Smith Ohlrig on his yacht.

Leonora spends a day or two undecided as to whether to go — her roommate gooses her along and says it’s the one chance she’ll have to meet the sort of rich man she’s fantasizing about marrying — and at the end she waits on the dock and is picked up by a tall, dark stranger who turns out to be Ohlrig himself, who found his own party boring and decided to escape it. He takes her for a wild ride in his fancy car — “Will you please look at the road?” she pleads as he drives her along at reckless speeds — and they date for a while. Ohlrig is shown in a scene with his psychiatrist (Art Smith), in which the psychiatrist tells him he’ll never actually get married — and Ohlrig takes that as a dare and decides then and there to marry Leonora. The wedding is heavily publicized and hailed in the media as a real-life Cinderella story, but needless to say behind the scenes things aren’t happy: Ohlrig turns out to be neurotically controlling and makes Leonora’s life hell until she separates from him.

She takes a job as a receptionist for two doctors, Larry Quinada (James Mason, top-billed, in his first U.S.-made film) and Dr. Hoffman (Frank Ferguson) — Hoffman is an obstetrician and Quinada a pediatrician — and at first she’s a washout but she soon applies herself, and Quinada starts taking an interest in her and dating her. He proposes marriage and it’s only then that she tells him she can’t marry him because she’s married already — and Quinada recalls the publicity surrounding her marriage and remembers why she always looked so familiar. Meanwhile, she’s had a pregnancy test run on herself by Dr. Hoffman, and it turns out she’s carrying Ohlrig’s baby — and Ohlrig seizes on that as the ultimate in leverage to force her either to return to him or, failing that, to give him the baby. Eventually she suffers a miscarriage ex machina that ends Ohlrig’s hold on her, and the implication is that he’s going to dump her and she’ll be free to marry Quinada.

I’d first seen Caught on TV in the 1970’s and recalled it as better than it seems now — for all the potential of a plot dealing with a rich man who regards the people around him, including the one he’s nominally married to, as just that many more possessions to be used as long as they amuse him and discarded once they no longer do, the film seems to rely on a lot of plot contrivances. It’s also problematically cast; Robert Ryan is superb as the psychopathic millionaire but James Mason seems miscast (in his best roles he’s either decadent or downright evil; he’s as unbelievable as the goody-two-shoes doctor as he is as a British actor playing someone with a Latino name) and Barbara Bel Geddes is a good enough choice but only because Hollywood in the late 1940’s wasn’t exactly full of spunky-young-woman types (the Barbara Stanwyck of the mid-1930’s would have been absolutely ideal for this part, but by 1949 Stanwyck would have been too old for it and it’s hard to think who else they could have got — Mercedes McCambridge?). And the moral of the story that money can’t buy happiness and be careful what you wish for because you just might get it is hammered home with the sort of obviousness one would expect from the parlor pinks who were running Enterprise, many of whom would end up blacklisted not long after the studio closed down.

What makes Caught worthwhile is the noir atmosphere created by cinematographer Lee Garmes and art director P. Frank Sylos. The film seems to have been influenced a great deal by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons — though Ophuls, as a European, was in touch with the sources for the chiaroscuro shadows and other appurtenances of what eventually became film noir and probably hadn’t needed to watch Welles’ movies to learn to make a film like this, still Caught not only uses the visual style of Kane and Ambersons but uses it for the same dramatic purpose: to dramatize the plight of rich people whose money isn’t making them at all happy. Supposedly Ophuls’ trademark was moving-camera shots (another Welles specialty!), and the TCM staff member who picked this movie stressed a long sequence inside a jazz nightclub Quinada and Leonore go to, in which Ophuls (or Berry) keeps a single shot going for two continuous minutes without a cut, moving the camera continually. (This was 12 years after Alfred Hitchcock had done a famous moving-camera shot in a similar environment — a dance hall — in Young and Innocent to swoop around the crowd and on up to the bandstand to discover that the band’s drummer, a man with an uncontrollably twitching eye, is the murderer being sought by the innocent young hero who’s been accused of the crime.)

Caught is a quite good movie from the visual standpoint, and Robert Ryan’s performance makes the millionaire seem fearsome but not entirely unsympathetic — though the script uses few details from the real Hughes’ life and the character is far less recognizable as him than Charles Foster Kane was as William Randolph Hearst. The studio was scared stiff throughout the production that Hughes was going to have a Hearst-like hissy-fit over his portrayal and shut down shooting — which he could easily have done because two of the stars, Ryan and Bel Geddes, were on loan from Hughes-owned RKO — and apparently he had rushes of Caught sent to him every day so he could watch them (presumably from the base he had established at the Samuel Goldwyn studio, from which he ran RKO; rather than take an office at RKO itself, he rented one from Goldwyn and on at least one film, Double Dynamite, insisted that every set built for the movie be taken down, shipped to Goldwyn, set up on a Goldwyn stage so he could inspect it, and then if he passed it, the set would be taken down again, shipped back to RKO and set up on an RKO stage for the actual shooting) — but he never complained about the character Ryan was playing. I commented to Charles later that William Randolph Hearst’s hatred of Citizen Kane had little or nothing to do with how he was portrayed in it — what pissed him off, and led him to try to suppress the film, was the presentation of Marion Davies as the untalented and shrewish “Susan Alexander” — and in everything that’s been written about Howard Hughes there’s no evidence that he ever cared enough about any other person to want to defend their honor the way Hearst did with Davies.

Caught was one of only four films Ophuls made in the U.S. (the others were The Exile, a swashbuckler for Universal with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Charles II, obviously attempting the kind of film his dad had excelled in; Letter From an Unknown Woman, a superb Vienna-set soap opera with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan; and The Reckless Moment, another film noir, which I’ve never seen, though the recent remake The Deep End was superb and piques my curiosity about the Ophuls original), and given the way he was run ragged by Robert Aldrich and was literally directing for a collapsing company, it’s no wonder he beat a hasty retreat back to Europe and made the films on which his enduring reputation rests: La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame De … and Lola Montes.