Thursday, October 18, 2012

Caught - 1949

“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.

The movie lulls us into the mindset of false values from very beginning. Over the opening credits, we see lush magazine ads from some high-tone publication. Ladies’ gowns, jewels. The camera pans back, and we see two young women, ogling the expensive merchandise, pretending what they would buy if they were rich. It’s a normal scene, people do this all the time. Nothing nefarious about two girls drooling over a picture of a mink coat, smoking their cigarettes on a chenille bedspread. The mink coat image is going to play a big part in this movie.

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.

Barbara Bel Geddes (what a great name) is a young carhop who wants to marry well. She is encouraged to do so by her roommate, played by Ruth Brady, who insists that Barbara must better herself and go to school. We might agree, but then we understand she means go to charm school. “Without a social education, you’re never going to meet a real man.”

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.”

So Barbara Bel Geddes’ foray into the charm school run by Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Thurston Howell, III, to you), is nothing at which to snicker. Lessons in the social graces were considered to be ammunition for making your way in the world. Today...not so much.

Director Ophüls makes some interesting decisions. We see Miss Bel Geddes first in rolled up jeans, a girl dreaming of pretty things money can buy. Ruth Brady sits at their card table and figures out the finances. The folding card table that could be bought from any discount store is an image of their poverty and social level.

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.”

With her new education, Bel Geddes gets a job as a store model, wearing what else? A mink coat. Well-heeled ladies finger her garment, including Beaver’s mom, Barbara Billingsley.

Another customer eyes her goods. He’s Curt Bois, whom you may remember from “Casablanca” (1943) as the pickpocket, “Vultures, vultures everywhere.”

Here, he’s Robert Ryan’s slimy toady, who picks up girls for Ryan. Nice scene where Bel Geddes, who is onto Mr. Bois, opens her coat one side at a time at his request to see the lining. She reveals her figure, which was what he really wanted to see, and then he invites her to a party on Ryan’s yacht.

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.

Robert Ryan is masterful in this movie. It could be such a mustache-twirling role, but instead of playing at villainy or going over the top as another actor might, Ryan attacks the character just as the character attacks life. He makes us believe that he is genuine. That is what is so frightening about his character. He believes in himself.

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.

When Ruth Brady visits her at her husband's mansion, she thrills at the fairyland wonder of being rich, and bellies up to the lifestyle like a pig at a trough.

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.

Robert Ryan is a terrific alpha male, with something skewed that the director lets us in on right away. Shortly after he and Barbara meet, we see him visiting his psychiatrist. They have a sparring relationship. Ryan is impatient, irritated, annoyed with the doctor’s assessment of Ryan as a man who likes to have his own way, to the childish extent of developing psychosomatic illness if he does not. Ryan believes his angina attacks are because of a bad heart. The psychiatrist, played with wonderful world-weary frankness by Art Smith, tells him he only gets these attacks if he doesn’t get his way. Like a spoiled child’s tantrum. Ryan is paranoid about his money to the extent, as the doc says, of never wanting to marry because he believes a woman would only be after his money.

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.

As his wife, her life becomes a series of insults, humiliation, and psychological abuse. He tests her loyalty by making her stay up until the wee hours of the morning to act as hostess for his impromptu business meetings. She is bejeweled and coiffed, and wearing gowns, and that coveted mink, but she is a prisoner in a cage. Her only companion is Bois, who is his master’s stooge. Bois, irritating and concerned only with his own self-preservation, expresses no sympathy for her, only wheedles her into doing what the boss wants. But the boss is never pleased.

Ryan works his mind games on her and makes her feel unworthy. In another interesting table scene, the camera is level with the pool table in one of cavernous rooms in his mansion. She sits bewildered, overtired, on a low stool while he conducts a miserable tirade of insults and accusations in a cool, firm voice. He is as authoritative as he would be in a business meeting. The only thing that betrays his sociopathic obsession is the way he continuously rolls billiard balls on the table, grasping them one by one, tightly, and then firmly shoving them across to carom off the sides. In other scenes, he will clench his fists as he talks, as if trying to suppress an obsessive tic. (Though the story is based on a novel by Libbie Block, screenwriter Arthur Laurents and the director flavored the character with personality traits of Howard Hughes.)

We might well wonder why on earth she doesn’t leave Ryan, clearly a bully and master of manipulation. That answer is supplied later on in the film by James Mason. He plays a doctor in a struggling practice on the lower east side of New York. He will eventually tell her that she married Ryan for the security, the goods, the money and not because she loved him. She tells herself, and others, that she loves him, but she is fooling herself. She does not want to feel guilty or admit that she is wrong.

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.

Miss Bel Geddes walks away from Robert Ryan and takes a job as the receptionist in the office shared by Mason and the terrific Frank Ferguson, who is an obstetrician. Ferguson is one of those fellows who we may recognize in bit parts in a zillion TV shows and movies. I wonder if this was his largest role? He is my favorite character in the movie. He stumbles in and out of his office, vest unbuttoned, kindly and patient, but always exhausted. Because he delivers babies at all hours, he takes odd moments in the office to shine his shoes, or shave himself. There’s something really quite endearing about his character.

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.

Bel Geddes is lost, and vulnerable. Robert Ryan shows up at her shabby one-room apartment, contrite. The only thing more humiliating than him berating her is him feeling sorry for her living conditions, with the noisy L track outside her window. We see, too, that she has reverted to using a card table for her meals and to practice her typing. The most gallant thing Ryan ever does in this movie is help her to fold it up.

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.

The last night of passion with Ryan has resulted in pregnancy. We know she’s pregnant by the way she steps out from behind the screen and buttons her blouse; we know it before the test results have come back.

Her dilemma now is more than just carrying the child of a man she loathes. She also makes a friend in Mason. He sees her without a warm coat on a cold day (she has put aside her mink) and buys her a cloth coat. A touching moment of ironic gratitude when she accepts, as if he has given her diamonds.

They struggle through a crowded dance floor on their first date, and we see her laugh for the first time. On their first date, he proposes.

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.

Possibly my favorite scene in the movie is when Mason and Ferguson are alone in their office late at night discussing Bel Geddes’ disappearance. Here is where the director steps in again and tells the story in an intimate, artful way. The camera settles on Ferguson, standing in his office doorway, laconically shaving himself with an electric razor, enjoying a quiet moment before the next medical call.

The camera slowly swings across the empty desk where Bel Geddes usually sits, over to the office doorway of James Mason. He leans against the doorframe, puzzling aloud why Barbara has left them. The camera goes quietly back and forth between them. On the corner of her desk are empty in-boxes for each doctor with his name on it.

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.

Neither doctor knows Bel Geddes, who used her maiden name with them, is the wife of the rich guy. Ferguson knows she’s pregnant, and assumes she's run off to conceal her pregnancy because she is an unmarried woman. His taciturn behavior is touching. He keeps her confidence and does not tell Mason what he knows. Today we might call it observing the HIPAA rules, but he’s just being ethical and gallant because that’s his nature.

When Mason tells him of their first date, Ferguson asks, carefully, if that was their only date. He wonders if Mason is the father.

Mason eventually finds his way to the mansion and confronts both Ryan and Bel Geddes. Torn, she plops on the running board of one of their many cars to think about the crisis. As we discussed in this 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.

Bois quits, with the calm, soft utterance, “You know you’re a big man, but not big enough to destroy that girl.”

Today, he is a man.

And launches Ryan into one of his most serious faux angina attacks.

We may have forgotten that these attacks are not real, and when Bel Geddes, in a trance of indecision, looks right at the camera when she discovers Ryan lying under his pinball machine (boys and their toys), moaning for water, we might almost cheer when she leaves him there. Sort of like Bette Davis and the dying Herbert Marshall in “The Little Foxes” (1941).

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.

It’s a very strange way to the end the movie for several reasons. First, it gives that unsatisfying deus ex machina feel to it, that fate intervened and took away all their problems. Stories are more meaningful if the characters solve their own problems, even if imperfectly.

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.

There is a strong melodramatic element to the movie, or could be, but the smooth underplaying of Barbara Bel Geddes makes her a believable character. She may not exactly be a heroine or a victim, but she could be somebody you know. While it is uncomfortable watching Robert Ryan’s cruelty to her, the sureness of his acting is strong point to this movie. He’s a monster, but he’s also believable in a way many movie villains are not. He conveys that arrogant and even bitter disdain some holders of extreme wealth display to those whose incomes are inferior. Ironically, the only person who can dislodge him from his psychological king of the mountain game is himself and his paranoia.

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.


grandoldmovies said...

What a great post! I love how you point out the small, but significant details, such as the scratches on a table, and how they add so much to the film's atmosphere. Such as Ryan's rolling and gripping the billiard balls; he was the kind of actor who could add those telling items to a performance. I agree that this film is noir and that the ending is unsatisfactory; the child's death seems forced and unthought-out, as if the filmmakers needed to find an ending fast. It's a wonderful movie, though, and is part of Ophuls' late 40s look (eg, The Reckless Moment) at women and their engulfing circumstances.

Vienna said...

Thank you for fine review. Anything Robert Ryan is in is ok by me. As much as I like Barbara Bel Geddes in I REMEMBER MAMA and BLOOD ON THE MOON, I think she is too wholesome for this part .

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, GOM and Vienna. It's a movie that gives us a lot to look at, even if some elements of the whole are unsatisfactory.

ClassicBecky said...

I did have to skip over most of your article, unfortunately, because I would love to see this one. Robert Ryan and James Mason -- a must-see! Thanks for the tip!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Sorry, Becky. I just can't help spilling the beans. Hope you can see it soon.

ClassicBecky said...

No problem, Jacqueline -- at least you give a warning! I hate it when I read an article and realize I'm finding out things I don't want to know yet! I just appreciate the heads-up on a good movie.

Laura said...

This is such an interesting movie! I especially love James Mason in it, and the scene where he meets up with Robert Ryan had a real "wow" factor, such great actors!

I was delighted that you singled out Frank Ferguson -- somehow I knew you would, as I began reading. He's one of my favorites and is absolutely wonderful in this.

I agree, the ending was strange, kind of a cop-out and weirdly celebratory. As you say, I wish the movie had had more time to continue that storyline and delve into it more deeply. Would have been much more interesting conflict if she had the baby.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Laura. Yes, that scene where Mason meets Ryan is terrific. I didn't really delve into it as I should have, but that moment when Ryan tells Mason that Barbara Bel Geddes is his wife -- electrifying.

As for the end scene where she loses the baby, maybe if we had gotten one more look at Ryan it might have put a capper on the movie. Maybe if we had seen his reaction to the news. We never see him again after she leaves him on the floor.

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