It occurred to me while watching Caught, Max Opuls’ 1948 noir psycho-drama, that had he been making films today, they might have looked something like the recently released Grace of Monaco. Caught’s gilded cage scenario shares many style and story elements with the soured fairy tale biopic of Grace Kelly.
Director Olivier Dahan’s magisterial mise-en-scène seems directly inspired by Opuls, who tells the story of a fanciful social climber (Barbara Bel Geddes) stuck in a loveless marriage with a monstrous millionaire (Robert Ryan) in smooth tracking shots that seem to burnish the bars of her lavish prison as they pass through it. Sweeping over ornate fireplaces, and under crystal chandeliers, the gold leaf colouring is almost visible under the surface of Lee Garmes’ black and white cinematography. Like Grace, Caught is told from the point of view of a put-upon female protagonist marrying into a world she is quite unprepared for, and forced to play a part for a man of great wealth and influence. Pent up dispassions are extravagantly expressed through elaborately staged long takes, and while Grace is largely reliant on the kind of extreme close-ups Opuls famously abhorred, even these seem to follow his dictum that “moving pictures should move”, skimming across Nicole Kidman’s face and looking for flaws in flawlessness, the same way Opuls’ camera hones in on the serious complications of his characters underneath the draperies of moneyed sophistication.
Leonora lives diminutively as a carhop, frugally saving so that she might attend the Dorothy Dale Charm School, a college cum finishing school, selling social education as a way to meet a rich man and get out of an unbecoming daily grind. With her classes going well, Leonora finds herself modelling furs in department stores for the rich, where slimy business men invite them to parties and the girls willingly accept to further their ‘education’. The school fees are expensive but the whole set up is cheap, a time of absolute patriarchy, where women had no choice but to degrade themselves for means of social advancement. Like everyone else in her class, Leonora is caught in the system long before she is caught by a domineering husband.
Invited to the yacht party of wealthy tycoon, Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), Lenora is stranded on the docks after missing her water taxi. In the fashion of Jay Gatsby’s surprise reveal, the lowly dock worker Leonora gets talking to reveals himself to be Smith Ohlrig himself, who like Gatsby, has no interest in parties, just the attention he gets from putting them on. An icon of noir, Ryan fittingly emerges from the shadows and remains shrouded in darkness for the rest of the film, which only adds to the glowering threat of his physically imposing screen persona. Not one to fall hard, yet smitten with Leonora, a confession to his psychiatrist (concerned about his patient’s recent spate of angina attacks believed to be psychologically triggered by profound feelings of loneliness and paranoia about people after his money), ends with Smith angrily vowing to marry Leonora just to prove his shrink wrong.
Taken east from her crummy LA apartment to more opulent New York interiors, it doesn’t take long for Leonora to realise that she’s just another part of the exorbitant furnishings, abandoned by a workaholic husband and spending her days dosing up on pills that keep her up till three am, when Smith returns with guests in tow expecting her to play hostess. Smith plays possessive mind games with his wife, kicking her around and keeping her under thumb, a torture effectively underscored by the way Ryan is seen bashing away on a pinball machine or gleefully hurling balls around a pool table, while Leonora sits soft focus in the background.
Unable to divorce her husband, Leonora moves out of the mansion and goes to work for a dedicated doctor, Larry Quinada (James Mason, in his American debut). “I hope you’re looking for work and not a husband” she’s told when applying for the receptionist position, reminded of her awful mistake while reminding the viewer of how many women in this time were willing to throw themselves into the fire of tormented trophy wife servitude. Leonora gets the job but as if suffering from a form of Stockholm syndrome, starts recommending elocution lessons to patient’s daughters, promoting the same beliefs she’s ran away from, hoping perhaps that they might succeed where she failed. Larry is falling in love with her but doesn’t let her off easy, insisting she focus on improving her work like an encouraging but stern schoolmaster. When Smith begs forgiveness and Leonora goes back to him under the proviso she’s allowed to continue working, Larry’s feelings for her turn out to be mutual, and her boss makes it abundantly clear there’s only one way their relationship can work: “Grow up – if you want mink coats and houses, I don’t want you.”
Now caught having to choose between two men, the stark contrast between male leads both exuding authority, is subtly suggestive of Leonora having to surrender a part of herself, whoever she decides to be with, darkening any potential happy ending. A bubbling volcano always seen clenching his fists, as Smith’s obssessive feelings intensify, so to do his angina attacks, and Ryan’s loss of control during the film’s finale is as forceful as his earlier assured arrogance. If Smith is made a fool by love, Mason’s doctor Quinada is not a man to suffer them. Quick to see the diagonis of any problem, Larry dominates conversations with Leonora, sympathetic to her plight but keen to steer them from hysterical sobbing toward something more practical. Mason purposely underplays where Ryan is showy, but like two sides of the same coin, his restraint is suggestive of repressed passions underneath the practicality, which might just as easily overwhelm him as they have Smith.
An elegant, contained melodrama tracing its twisted psychologies through its sumptuous setting, Caught never tips into the Ferrero Rocher camp to which Grace of Monaco is occasionally (but not unwelcomely) prone, for its underlying fatalistic sentiment is pure noir; whatever good intentions and high hopes Leonora might have for herself are overridden by the structures of society, which for all the charm and social education in the world, has already decided Leonora’s place in it.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on July 10, 2014