“Caught” (1949) is one of those movies that reminds us, deliciously so, that what the story is about is sometimes not as important as how it is told. After all, there are just so many different plots. Director Max Ophüls (or Opuls) achieves intimacy with his characters in small, very telling ways that in the hands of another director might be cliché, in a story that could have been very melodramatic.
The story is about false values and how we surrender to them. Illusions we create to trick ourselves. The movie is a morality play without getting preachy, because we can understand how lead actress Barbara Bel Geddes is lured into an unhappy situation. It could happen to anybody, and does, every day. For her, it is the goal of marrying a wealthy man. For others, it might be falling under the thumb of credit card debt or backstabbing fellow employees to get the corner office, any number of horrid scenarios in which basically good people lose themselves in the struggle for what we imagine is the good life.
Fans debate over whether it is true film noir. For my money, it is, and not just because of all those table-height shots (which are quite important to the telling of this story - more about that later). I would call it noir for more than the stark cinematography, but rather for the self-imposed sentence of doom the principle characters endure. Even the weak ending to the story, which seems some sort of compromise, does not negate that most of the film is a dark journey into wretchedness caused by the characters themselves.
By the way, a mélange of spoilers ahead. Discreetly look away if this troubles you.
And this one is going to be long. Go long. I’ll hit you in the end zone.
Before we think charm school too frivolous, which in these days most people probably do, we need to recall that there once was a real emphasis on the social graces to getting ahead in society and in business. Not undeservedly so, (I wish a few more people today would go to charm school. I’m not talking about you. They know who they are. Maybe.), though this movie shows us the dark side of putting importance only on the appearance and not the substance of a human being.
Have a look here at one of my favorite blogs, Shopping Days in Retro Boston for a post on the charm and etiquette classes department stores offered for young ladies that were popular right up until the early 1970s. As blogger “Charles Boston” relates:
“Charm schools, etiquette classes or fashion guidance seminars were offered by most of the once great Boston stores. Beginning gently in the 1930’s R.H. White’s offered a short course from a visiting expert in the “field of charm” and then by the 1940’s Jordan Marsh began the Marsha Jordan Fashion Board (also called “fashion council” in some years) and Chandler’s began the Junior Charm School for young ladies.
The Jordan Marsh Marsha Jordan Contest phenomenon was a huge success for pre-teen and teenage girls and carried on well into the 1970’s.”
Tables seem to be of great importance in this movie. When we see the girls at charm school sitting at a table, enacting a practice scene of social introduction between ladies, we may not notice at first that the table, a sturdy wooden prop, is actually quite scratched and worn. It is an unmentioned, scruffy reality behind a sham presentation. This rented office Natalie Schafer uses is a stark contrast to her elegant clothing and white gloved practice handshakes. Like Kathleen Freeman, the comic vocal coach in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), Miss Schafer exhorts the girls to “speak out, full tones.”
Another customer eyes her goods. He’s Curt Bois, whom you may remember from “Casablanca” (1943) as the pickpocket, “Vultures, vultures everywhere.”
Her roommate, of course, urges her to go because Mr. Ryan is richer than rich, and that is their object. Miss Bel Geddes is reticent and replies, “I resent the whole setup.”
It’s the last bit of integrity we see from her for the rest of the film. She goes to the party, and though Ryan sweeps her away from it to do business in town, leaving her to fall asleep alone in his convertible, she links herself to this fellow and her own downfall quite willingly.
He’s handsome, rugged, educated, lives in a mansion, owns everything, and is supremely wealthy. We cannot really blame Bel Geddes for marrying this man when everybody from her roommate, and all of society is telling her she’s nuts if she doesn’t. The newspapers call her the carhop and emphasize how lucky she is. One headline quotes her proud mother saying she always knew her daughter would be a success. She’s the Cinderella girl.
Our Cro-Magnon ancestors would have understood. The female early human, just like a female animal, received only the strongest male, and became his prize. Despite the Renaissance notion of romantic love giving us a lot of lovely poetry, we see that for Barbara Bel Geddes, the 20th century harkens back, in its confounding commercialism, to those ancient days when “a real man” as Ruth Brady puts it, was the alpha male.
Ryan, in a child’s you’re-not-the-boss-of-me mode, picks up the phone and calls his toady to get that girl -- he cannot recall her last name -- and make arrangements for quickie wedding in Yuma. There, he showed that doctor a thing or two.
The idea might seem ridiculous, but the scene is quite chilling. We see at once what lengths Ryan will go to not to be topped. He has no feelings for Barbara Bel Geddes, except to use her.
This is another noir element to the film. Bel Geddes may be a victim, but she’s hardly honest. She is a golddigger. James Mason is the hero who will rescue her, but he’s no knight in shining armor for all his ministering to poor patients as a pediatrician. In one scene, a child nearly dies because he has ignored important symptoms. But he accepts his mistake and learns from it.
Bel Geddes, who never pursued anything of worth, or put any effort into it, is a lousy receptionist and Mason bawls her out. But his criticism is not like Ryan’s. He does not diminish or humiliate her. Rather, he calls her out on flaws that she’s smart enough to fix if she weren’t so lazy. Mason is exasperated with her mink coat and foolish sense of values. Even the nurse, when Bel Geddes applies for the job asks her, “I hope you’re looking for work and not a husband.”
In the mindset of the times, one can hardly blame her suspicions.
Or blame Bel Geddes if she was just looking for a doctor husband.
When he asks her out, she slips her hand into the closet covered only by a drab curtain, and pulls out her mink coat.
Next is the morning after scene. She’s in their bed in the mansion, one strap of her negligee artfully slipped down off her shoulders as the toady Bois wakes her. Ryan wants her up and at ‘em in an hour. He and his business colleagues are touring his plants across the country. She has to come along for appearances.
She’s had it. She goes back to her reception work for the doctors, and really applies herself this time, taking shorthand lessons, studying medical terminology and office procedures. She’s finally making good.
But we are not entirely surprised when she comes into the office early to greet Frank Ferguson just back from a late-night call. It occurs to us when she timidly taps on his door…he’s an obstetrician.
Habit and the force of what a commercial society has told her from puberty is too strong for Bel Geddes, and she goes back to Ryan, the alpha male, so that her baby can grow up with all the good things.
Bel Geddes isn’t in this scene, yet she’s all over this scene in the image of the unoccupied desk. She fills the room.
When Mason tells him of their first date, Ferguson asks, carefully, if that was their only date. He wonders if Mason is the father.
previous post, there’s nothing quite so romantic as a running board.
Bel Geddes elects to stay with Ryan, and he continues to treat her badly, to the point of finally upsetting toady Curt Bois. We can imagine Bois has been with him for years, lured to a life of bitter, demeaning servitude to this rich horse’s ass because he’s just as guilty of greed. But when he sees this pregnant girl growing sicker and exhausted, he’s had enough. He quietly tells Ryan he wants to go back to being a head waiter. Ryan calls him a dirty parasite, and tells him to bring down his wife.
Today, he is a man.
And launches Ryan into one of his most serious faux angina attacks.
Okay. Here’s the ending. Don’t get excited, it’s not that great.
Miss Bel Geddes, who does not look at all several months pregnant, goes into premature labor. The baby is stillborn. Mr. Mason rallies her with the exuberant message that now she is free from Ryan.
Second, it feels unsettling to have a baby being born dead as a cause for relief and even celebration. True, the pregnancy was unwanted and the father was most certainly intending to destroy both mother and child (which he did not believe was his anyway). Though regretting a pregnancy is human, to be glad the baby has died, as both Mason and Bel Geddes demonstrably are, may just make this another reason to call it noir. It’s a twist.
Third, if the child had lived it would have added to the conflict to the story and might have led to a more exciting and interesting ending. Her severance from Ryan would have taken more work, especially since he could have used his immense wealth to accuse Mason of being the father and ruined both him and Bel Geddes.
But, the movie has to end sometime, doesn’t it? I’d like to know how the novel ended. Novels have a lot more time to sort these things out.
Sly, quick moment to catch: when Bel Geddes steps out of Ferguson’s office after her gynecology examination, the nurse, just entering the office quips, “You don’t look it.”
Meaning she doesn’t look tired even after working late last night. It gives Bel Geddes a start. Paranoia has different levels.