Revenge on a control freak

Max Oph|ls offers a savage portrait of Howard Hughes in this tale of a sadistic millionaire terrorizing a naive girl.

Published July 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The history of the movies is littered with stories of filmmakers mistreated by the money-men who've hired them. Those experiences usually wind up recounted in memoirs, or heavily disguised in novels or screenplays about the movie business. No filmmaker may ever have taken the direct revenge that Max Oph|ls does in his 1949 movie "Caught."

"Caught" is Oph|ls' payback for the treatment he had received at the hands of Howard Hughes earlier in the decade. Yet to make "La Ronde," "The Earrings of Madame de ..." or "Lola Montes" -- the lush and elegant romantic costume films that would stand as the greatest realization of his style -- the German-born Oph|ls had arrived in America in 1941 after fleeing the Nazis, first from his own country in 1933 and then following the fall of France. Oph|ls didn't get a Hollywood assignment until five years later, when he became the first of many directors Hughes would hire to make "Vendetta," the debut vehicle of Hughes' "discovery" Faith Domergue. Accounts of what happened include stories of Hughes insulting and ridiculing Oph|ls within the director's earshot. Oph|ls was fired from "Vendetta" after only a few days' shooting, but finally found other Hollywood work the following year (he was credited as Max Opuls in his American films). "Caught," his third Hollywood picture, was ostensibly an adaptation of a novel called "Wild Calendar" by Libbie Block. But Oph|ls and screenwriter Arthur Laurents relied less on the novel than on stories they had heard from some of Hughes' discarded women.

Perched halfway between a film noir and a woman's picture, "Caught" features at its center Robert Ryan's frightening portrait of Smith Ohlrig, a psychotic millionaire who marries a naive young girl (Barbara Bel Geddes) for the pleasure of destroying her. Hughes in 1949 had not acquired the reputation for full-blown eccentricity that came with his mysterious final years. But Robert Ryan's rangy build is a visual echo of Hughes', and Smith Ohlrig's impulsive and determined cruelty merges with the tales of Hughes' crazy need for control that are so familiar today.

In "Caught" that cruelty is focused on Bel Geddes' Leonora Eames. Oph|ls captures the chasm between Leonora's station in life and the place she dreams of for herself in the movie's opening image: a glossy fashion magazine lying open on a chenille bedspread. She wants to find a rich man to take her away from her crummy little apartment, but she can't bring herself to make it obvious that she's in the market for a husband. She thinks the nighttime charm school classes she scrimps to pay for will help her escape from her department-store job modeling -- for bored, rich customers -- fashions she can't begin to afford. When she meets Smith Ohlrig, she doesn't so much leave her past behind as trade up: Leonora simply becomes a higher-priced piece of merchandise for the amusement of a much more possessive customer.

Bel Geddes, an actress who has never gotten her due, makes Leonora sympathetic but also willfully naive, just short of being culpable in her own predicament. She uses her own lack of glamor, her slight plainness, to emphasize how Leonora lives in a fantasy world. (She would use the same quality to a completely opposite effect in her brilliant performance in "Vertigo.") In jewels and gowns amid the swank of Olhrig's mansion, Leonora looks dreadfully out of place, miserable that the realization of her dreams has turned out to be so sour.

Much of "Caught" deals with what happens when Leonora, realizing she's a played-out joke to Ohlrig, leaves him and attempts to shake the stuffing out of her head by working as the receptionist to a brusque young tenement doctor (the young James Mason in a crisp, warm performance) with whom she falls in love. But even when he's off-screen, Robert Ryan hovers over the picture.

If there were any justice, Robert Ryan would have long ago been recognized as one of our finest actors. Over a 30-year career, he gave superb performances in pictures as varied as "The Set Up," "Act of Violence," "Bad Day at Black Rock" and "The Wild Bunch." The danger in Ryan's performance as Smith Ohlrig lies in what he doesn't do: Ohlrig knows that threatening to exercise his power lends him much more menace than following through ever could. And yet that coiled power afflicts him with a rancid impotence. When he doesn't get his way, he suffers "attacks" that leave him literally gasping for breath. Ryan combines a child's absolute selfishness with the cunning of a practiced sadist. He's a nightmare image of the American fetish for self-improvement: Horatio Alger come back as a cat toying with his -- still living -- food.

"Caught" isn't fully satisfying because of the way it hovers between two genres, and it may be a shock to people used to the fluid opulence of Oph|ls' better-known films. But within its modest confines, it's a coruscating portrait of American fantasies and the confines of class. Visually (the movie was shot by Lee Garmes) "Caught" is a succession of private traps. The sets are either cramped and dingy, like Leonora's apartment and the doctor's offices where she works, or, like Ohlrig's mansion, so cavernous they seem unable to sustain human life. Still, the movie chooses the fetid air of the tenements where Leonora and her doctor work, over the stultified air of Ohlrig's mansion.

For Oph|ls it's an easy, unsentimental choice. He escaped the clutches of a crazy millionaire, too. He appears to have caught a whiff of genuine madness during his time with Hughes. This bitter little movie was Oph|ls' way of making sure he never forgot it.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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