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Revenge would be a better title but Caught it is, director Max Ophüls’s broadside against Howard Hughes, who’d fired him from Vendetta only days into shooting a film that was meant to launch the career of Faith Domergue, a Hughes “discovery” (booty division). Vendetta ended up with five directors’ names attached to it so clearly the launch needed more grease on the slipway than anticipated.

Hughes’s treatment of women, it turns out, is what Caught is all about, a reworking of the Libbie Block novel Wild Calendar also incorporating the stories Ophüls and screenwriter Arthur Laurents had heard about the infamously philandering studio boss.

Naive and nice young thing Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes) dreams of marrying a “handsome young millionaire”, like most of the girls at the department store where she works, then one day accidentally runs into one on the way out to a party on a yacht. He’s Smith Ohlrig, a handsome young millionaire who finds Leonora’s straightforwardness and naivety charming. (“Oil rig?” – the Hughes family fortune was based on the oil industry, so this might be a joke.)

They marry. She out of love, but also enchanted by the millionaire lifestyle. He to defy his psychiatrist who told him he should’t ruin yet another young woman’s life. After a year the shrink is proved right. She is miserable, a bullied bird in a gilded cage. To assert her independence she heads off to work for a doctor in the city, pretending to be simple Miss Eames rather than complex Mrs Ohlrig. And since the doctor is played by handsome, debonair James Mason and is kind, self-effacing, dutiful, everything Ohlrig isn’t, she falls in love with him too.

Crunch time will come down the road but in the interim it’s a case of watching Bel Geddes maintain the sympathy of the audience with a carefully calibrated bit of acting – Leonora is simple but not a simpleton, enchanting but not a temptress, and, as Bel Geddes tells it, she wanders almost backwards into her relationship with Dr Quinada.

James Mason was originally destined for the Ohlrig role but ended up playing the sympathetic good guy Dr Quinada after lobbying hard to get it. He’d often been bad guys or cads up to this point in his career but this role suits him perfectly. He makes Quinada a soul beyond reproach who would never knowingly court a married woman.

Ohlrig in a chair, an unhappy Leonora sitting on the stairs
Stairway to heaven? Ohlrig and Leonora

Which leaves Robert Ryan to play Ohlrig, a neurotic and unsympathetic villain with a short fuse and a daddy’s boy insistence on getting things his own way. It’s not much of a role but Ryan plays it well, and when he’s required about halfway through to show contrition and soften up for a moment, he’s convincing then as well.

A story of love versus duty, of remaining true to yourself or true to your vows, it works better as a piece of well aimed revenge than as urgent drama – it’s a bit thin, a bit drawn out – and the Ophüls insistence on the fluid camera (Mason wrote a jokey poem mocking Ophüls’s love of crane and track) doesn’t always do this slight story any favours. That said, there is a decisive moment, when Quinada and Ohlrig finally meet, when Ophüls dispenses with the waltzing cinematography altogether and goes instead for a stiletto edit – the two men’s faces, one after the other, right up close, bang, bang, bang, bang. It is like gunfire, brilliantly effective.

A flop in its day – Mason also joked about how the cast all felt “euphoric” having made this film… until it opened and nobody came – it’s picked up some critical speed in the intervening decades. That’s partly because all Ophüls films now bask in the reflected glow of his later period masterpieces, like La Ronde and Lola Montes, and partly because his film-making at a technical level is just so good, even when it isn’t entirely appropriate to the subject matter.

Caught – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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