Caught offers an intense corrective to the clichés of the American noir, particularly the perception of a woman as a predatory other who pulls all the strings, leading men downward toward a doom for which they often bear implicatively little personal responsibility. Right off, Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) is understood to be trapped, even before she catches the eye of Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a psychotic thug who’s also a brilliant businessman as well as a filthy-rich parody of Howard Hughes. A model trading in illusions of heightened female subservience that remain essentially taken for granted to this day, Leonora is encouraged to marry rich, an aim that’s to be realized by taking charm classes that will help her refine her methods of congenial anonymity. She’s essentially stuck between two modes of prostitution: literally posing at the department store that pays her practically nothing, or figuratively posing at Smith’s mansion for luxury beyond her imagination.
The premise indulges a blunt reduction of sexual politics, in the tradition of most memorable noirs, and the extent of the film’s impact resides in director Max Ophüls’s refusal to shy away from concentrated, pointedly symbolic outrage. In one of the boldest and riskiest touches, Ophüls elides Leonora and Smith’s courtship entirely, understanding that it’s meaningless—a series of prescribed rituals designed to superficially ease the placing of all the participants into socially preordained positions. Love, or even mild personal amusement, is of no interest to Smith, who’s contemptuous of marriage because he sees it as a woman’s way of commanding his purse string—an assertion that Ophüls doesn’t dispute in this context. Leonora is, understandably, equally resentful of, and beholden to, social mores that marginalize her as a sexual object that’s unable to assert even tiny bits of individuality such as deciding when to turn in for the night.
Caught isn’t in the same league as the string of masterpieces that would close Ophüls’s sadly curtailed career (this film’s range of emotional understanding is much narrower), but it shares their concern with the individual’s attempt to navigate society with some shred of internal specificity intact. Bel Geddes’s performance emphasizes Leonora’s stymied despair, as she’s been brought up to understand that all her instincts and desires are wrong in a belief system in keeping with a traditional American middle-class post-war setting that uses phrases such as “knowing a woman’s place” without any sense of irony. It’s a tricky, subtle, deceptive performance—not so much passive as it is an enraged study in willed passivity (if you don’t know the difference, your sympathies probably reside with Smith).
But Leonora’s entrapment is most vividly communicated by the film’s astonishing imagery. Virtually every scene shows Leonora eclipsed by a man, even her eventual savior, Larry Quinada (James Mason), a good-looking doctor who’s better intentioned than Smith, but understood by the filmmakers to be equally manipulative. Ophüls and cinematographer Lee Garmess often fashion diagonal planes that embolden the images with a nearly three-dimensional effect: One character will be in the foreground, either cowering from or looming over another character that’s positioned with mathematical precision to their immediate left or right or occasionally dead center behind them. In the rare instances that the characters aren’t nearly on top of another, they’re moons apart, confined to opposite ends of the screen and cocooned in loneliness. The blocking is ostentatiously achieved, and you’re meant to notice its contrivance, which grows pointedly suffocating.
Contrasting these arrangements are the gorgeous tracking shots for which Ophüls is well-known, which often point toward the constrictions of the poverty-stricken settings, particularly in comparison to the seemingly endless expanses of Smith’s mansion. (There are also instances where the camera appears to move just for the sheer hell of it, circling the characters with a roving curiosity that feels both arbitrary and predatory.) A memorable shot follows Larry through the walls of his shoestring-budgeted doctor’s office as he makes his way toward his partner, accentuating both the cozy directness of their establishment as well as the accompanying cost of their “people first” philosophies: limited, shabby resources. Another image, which would’ve fit right into All That Heaven Allows a few years later, positions Leonora behind a pane of glass as she speaks across the room to Larry. The association is unmistakable: She could be a doll in a transparent box on a department-store shelf. This fleeting moment encapsulates all the film’s meanings, boiling them down to one hard, bitter anti-grace note. Caught might be one of the most accurately titled of all American movies. As in Ida Lupino’s similarly themed Outrage, it offers a damning portrait of middle-class American society as a large and merciless snare.
This transfer boasts some minor visual inconsistencies (occasional clarity issues, visible blemishes), but generally preserves the remarkable dexterity of the film’s image. The deep focus of the cinematography is pivotally allowed to assert itself as an unofficial major character, and the blacks are rich and painterly. The English DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is bell-clear. The score sounds a little tinny at times, but that might be more of an issue with the music itself (which feels impersonally inserted over the film’s images) than the actual presentation here. Not a definitive transfer, but solid work.
Barebones, yes, but a sturdy home-video transfer of Max Ophüls’s savage, fascinating, and previously obscure Caught is wonderful news.