sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-08-26 03:30 am
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You've got to care about money to a certain extent

Last night I met with [personal profile] skygiants to watch Max Ophüls' Caught (1949), the first of his two American films noirs. It's not as complex or as coherent a picture as its follow-up The Reckless Moment (1949), which stunned me in May, but it's a striking, strange, surprisingly blunt examination of the ways in which a woman can be trapped and bound by social conventions, constructions of gender, her own body and the laws which govern it. Much of it is still all too relevant and recognizable today, and I don't say that just because the film opens with two roommates morosely totaling their limited finances and complaining about the humidity.

At first the story looks like a simple cautionary tale: the terrifying ease with which a Cinderella romance can turn into a Bluebeard marriage. Despite his brusque manner and his contemptuous affections, ex-carhop and recent charm school graduate Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) allows herself to accept a proposal of marriage from high-powered businessman Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), because he's worth ninety million and how do you say no to that? No sooner are the wedding headlines yesterday's news than the reality of Leonora's situation sets in: her husband is a chilly, controlling, volatile man who gets his philosophy straight from Ayn Rand; he views every interaction as a transaction and despises his wife for marrying him, because her acquiescence only proves that he met her asking price. He only married her to spite his psychiatrist.1 Very sensibly, she flees Ohlrig's cavernous rococo mansion and takes a job as a receptionist in an East Side clinic where she forms a friendship with unfazeable obstetrician Dr. Hoffman (Frank Ferguson) and something closer with his partner Dr. Larry Quinada (James Mason), an idealistic dropout from the upper middle class still figuring out what a bedside manner looks like. "I'm a very good textbook doctor," he admits after his underestimation of an anxious mother risks a child's life; he's tactless and prone to mansplaining, but we are encouraged to view him sympathetically in part because the film consistently calls him on it and he actually learns. He's the obvious romantic hero. He can't quite understand why Leonora is shy of him, especially when the mutual attraction is as plain as the smile on her face. Inevitably he proposes to her, but she's still married to Ohlrig and there's an additional catch . . .

This is almost exactly the two-thirds mark of the film, by which point it had taken several turns neither of us was expecting. I wasn't even expecting the main characters, honestly. Turn the trope kaleidoscope a little and Smith Ohlrig could be the alpha hero of a billionaire romance, wealthy, workaholic, control-freakish and ultimately vulnerable—but he exists in the real world, and so he's an abusive asshole. He gives a touching speech about the hardship of his upbringing in which we learn that his father only left him four million, he had to bootstrap the rest: "I didn't drink it away, I didn't gamble it away, I didn't marry it away . . . That's what everyone wants, isn't it? Well, I've got it. And I made it myself." When he can't get what he wants by social leverage or main force of money, he suffers apparent life-threatening nervous attacks that he attributes to "a bad heart." The aptness of his words bypasses him completely. He needs either to own people or destroy them. As Skygiants pointed out, the film is a primer on the ways in which a relationship can be abusive without physical violence. Ohlrig never lays a hand on Leonora. He doesn't need to, when he controls her finances and her social access. He calls his wife his highest-paid employee, treats her as if she's a prostitute not worth her price; he humiliates her in public and private and holds the simultaneous lure and threat of a divorce over her head, freedom if she complies with him, ruin if she doesn't. And over and over again, he browbeats her with the reminder that she only married him for his money—an accusation that Leonora protests whether she hears it sneeringly from Ohlrig or uncomprehendingly from Quinada. We never see her think of herself as a gold digger. She's reluctant to accept even a party invitation from Ohlrig's slithery factotum Franzi (Curt Bois) because it makes her feel "cheap"; she put herself through charm school on her roommate's advice, in order to equip herself with the proper graces to land a rich husband, but her daydreams remain romantic: Prince Charming discovering her at the perfume counter.2 Each stage of her attempts at self-improvement, from the aggressively socialized, self-effacing femininity of charm school to her new job as a department store model that requires her to display herself and a $4995 mink coat equally, reinforces the idea that she's a piece of interchangeable merchandise. What she wants is to be loved for herself, not the glaze of nicely mannered passivity she's been taught to put on like a beauty mark over the small mole on her cheek. But the entire weight of societal expectation is against her and the compromise she makes, in order to marry an industrial tycoon without feeling like she's sold herself, is to convince herself she's in love.

I am fascinated by the film's willingness to star a heroine this ambivalent and, for lack of a better word, implicated in the system she's trying to resist. She's more sympathetic if she's a "good" girl, isn't she? She's more realistic if she's not. And the film rewards her throughout with a sympathetic sensitivity that didn't shock me after The Reckless Moment, but still found ways to surprise me. Her marriage has wounded her in ways I don't think I've often seen depicted onscreen. There's a beautifully observed moment early in her relationship with Quinada in which he drapes the surprise overcoat he's bought for her—after she told him not to; he thought she just didn't want to be a bother—around her shoulders and she freezes utterly. It is not pleasant for her to have men buy her things. It does not make her feel like a valued colleague or even an affectionate friend; it reminds her that she's trapped in a toxic economy where she is expected to reciprocate a material down payment with her body. She knows what Quinada means by the gesture; it's a trigger all the same. That's like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) levels of unspoken attention to the small details of surviving abuse.3 And once again I can't talk about the aspect of the film that really interested me without spoilers, so proceed at your own risk as usual.

I have never before seen a Hollywood movie in which the loss of a pregnancy is a happy ending. I have never before seen a Hollywood movie—especially one made in the postwar '40's—acknowledge that far from being a blessed event and the natural fulfillment of a woman's life, a child can be nothing more than a particularly cruel form of control. A few weeks into Leonora's tenure as a receptionist, an unusually subdued Ohlrig shows up at the door of her efficiency apartment, under the rattling shadow of the elevated: he expresses dismay at her straitened circumstances, professes repentance, pleads with her to let him give her all the physical and emotional affection he denied her before. "It's not a very nice way, but it's the only way I knew . . . Let's go on [a honeymoon] tomorrow, Leonora. Let's start over again . . . We'll make everything just the way it ought to have been." Warily, she yields to his offer to take her out for a cup of coffee and the next morning finds her in the tumbled sheets of her husband's bed with the inescapable Franzi hovering over her with a breakfast tray. From him she learns that Ohlrig scheduled himself a business trip the day before he seduced her with promises of a honeymoon; he gave her the fairytale of the Beast tamed by the loss of Beauty and it was just as false as the Cinderella story they married on. She dresses and leaves without another word. Previously she treated her work indifferently; whether she admitted it to herself or not, she was marking time. Now she applies herself, acquiring office skills and medical knowledge with determined rapidity. She isn't waiting any longer for her husband's change of heart.

In hindsight of her unwelcome discovery of pregnancy, however, Ohlrig's one-night stand looks less like a misfired attempt at wooing back an alienated wife and more like a deliberate effort to entrap her. It succeeds. Knowing she doesn't have the resources to raise a child by herself—and correctly suspecting that Ohlrig will never let her do it so long as she's his wife; estranged or not, she is legally bound to him and so is any child she bears him—Leonora returns to his mansion on Long Island, where she hopes to persuade her husband to give her a divorce. He doesn't want her, he's never wanted a child, he should just let them go . . . Instead he only tightens his hold. As Leonora huddles numbly on the stairs, Ohlrig lays out the situation with the brutal egotism that defines him:

You can have your divorce, but I get the child. That's the condition . . . You once told me you thought I was sorry from the moment we married. That's pretty mild. I hated myself for being such a fool. I never wanted you in the first place. The more you fought me, the more I began to dislike you. I think now I hate you. All I care about is breaking you, and if I have to use the child to do it, I will. You know enough about me to know that I can't stand losing—only nice people lose, and you're obviously a nice girl. All you came back for is that child and as long as you want it, you're stuck here, and that's probably for the rest of your life!

If she tries to leave him while pregnant, he'll sue her for divorce with Quinada named as co-respondent; he'll ruin her and get custody of the child. If she tries to leave him after the child is born, same. It is viciously clear that any child raised by Ohlrig alone will suffer the same merciless abuse Leonora ran from. So she stays for the sake of the unborn thing and he grinds her down with a capricious combination of neglect and harassment and disruptive late-night calls to the point where even Franzi, whose moral event horizon appeared to be infinitely extendable, finally declares, "I think I'd prefer to be a head waiter again, Mr. Ohlrig," and walks out of the millionaire's employ with the quiet parting shot: "You know, you're a big man, but not big enough to destroy that girl." It's this explicit summation of the threat Leonora poses to his masculine dominance that triggers one of Ohlrig's reliable attacks, pitching him over underneath the pinball machine he pulled down with him; the scene which follows doesn't quite match Gaslight's climactic mind games, but the shot in which a blank-faced Leonora distantly surveys her husband as he gasps for water on the floor has a chilling satisfaction. She does not bring him his pills, or water. She calls his doctor, but only after she calls hers—Quinada, to come and take her away. It's not her fault that Ohlrig's attacks are psychosomatic and he doesn't die after all. She really tried. The miscarriage follows on the stress of this confrontation.

I noticed that it never occurs to her to seek an abortion—surely Dr. Hoffman, overworked obstetrician and reliable moral compass that he is, could have recommended her someone safe, if not at that time legal. Perhaps that was a line that couldn't be crossed. But as she lies in her hospital bed and hears through the door that her premature baby has died and that Ohlrig has no hold over her anymore, wounded, exhausted, and traumatized as she is, Leonora smiles. She would have loved any child she bore, but this one was a chain and she cannot regret its breaking. I can remember encountering this kind of relief in written fiction—mostly speculative and feminist—but never in a movie. In 1949? Unthinkable. It made me incredibly happy. Her future is uncertain, but her chances are good. And if Quinada has learned anything from his involvement in this nightmare of the nuclear family, he'll give her plenty of time to heal before he so much as suggests they move in together.

I know I am shortchanging Quinada, when Mason does a very good job with his first American role and one of his rare positive leading men. It is crucial to the film that neither Ophüls nor his scriptwriter Arthur Laurents positions him as an unmitigated hero; he is Leonora's ally and would-be lover, but he's not her savior, and he has perhaps even more trouble disentangling himself from absently sexist, heteronormative habits of thought than she does. She is not rescued from one man by another. With his background playing charismatic antiheroes for Gainsborough, Mason has the ability to acknowledge the problems with Quinada while making him believably appealing. He's complicit, too, but he's trying. I'm not at all surprised that Ophüls gave him an even better part in The Reckless Moment, morally shadier and even more attractive. That's a film I recommend for Mason; this one I recommend for Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan, and Ophüls' awkwardly paced but astonishing confrontation with all the things wrong with being a woman in America, in 1949 and nowadays. Since I have said nothing at all about the cinematography, which is magnificent and pointed, as effective and conspicuous as a good prose style, I leave you with Mason's last word on the subject, written after two films with the director:

I think I know the reason why
Producers tend to make him cry.
Inevitably they demand
Some stationary set-ups, and
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor dear Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again.

This study courtesy of my steadfast backers at Patreon.

1. Ohlrig's psychiatrist is a magnificent human being played by Art Smith who is obviously not being paid enough to listen to this self-justifying Randian bullshit. Whenever he offers an insight about Ohlrig's behavior, his client dismisses him as a Freud-babbling quack. The movie spends the rest of its runtime proving that everything he said about Ohlrig was right.

2. Her roommate Maxine (Ruth Brady) is cheerfully upfront about her intent to marry for money if she gets the chance, love being an incidental but not necessary bonus. We thought she'd have done fine marrying Ohlrig and then living as a glamorous estranged wife in Paris with a stipend and a string of admirers.

3. Skygiants made some cogent points about the character of Franzi which I hope she will repeat in a post of her own, but he illustrates the complexity of the system: he is both an enabler of Ohlrig's abuse of Leonora and a victim himself. When she slaps him in a moment of uncharacteristically violent frustration and apologizes at once, he responds evenly, if a little breathlessly, "It's all right. It saves him from getting hit. That's what I get paid for." It doesn't make him a nice person, but it makes the film subtler and more like the world it's representing, where the patriarchy lets very few people off lightly.
skygiants: Honey from Ouran with his hands to his HORRIFIED CHEEKS (ZOMG!)

[personal profile] skygiants 2015-08-27 01:36 am (UTC)(link)
ALSO, Ohlrig was apparently based on Howard Hughes, whom Ophüls apparently worked with for a bit and ended by hating with a hilarious and fiery passion?? Did you know this while watching? I did not know this! (before accidentally stumbling over it while down a Google hole.) I also don't know why it's so funny to me, but man, what a revenge fic!
spatch: (Admit One)

[personal profile] spatch 2015-08-26 08:11 am (UTC)(link)
Ohlrig can be nothing but a villain's name. It looks terrible spelled out and it's pronounced uncomfortably. It sounds like the name of a secondary character in a German expressionist film. If he were meant to be redeemed by love he'd have a kinder name but no less industrial name.

I don't think Dr. Hoffman could have advised an abortion even while sympathetic towards Leonora. The Hays Code probably prevented it from one direction; Hoffman as Gallant to Quinada's Goofus suggests he would have been following a similar moral code. (Did Quinada ever know Leonora was pregnant?)

[identity profile] 2015-08-26 02:55 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't think you've overthought it at all, not even a little. I'd heard second-hand about Caught's psychological complexity, but never about the miscarriage subplot--that's hard damn stuff to be slipping past the censors, subtly or not! Bravo, Mr Ophuls.

[identity profile] 2015-08-26 08:19 am (UTC)(link)
That poem is adorable, and the movie sounds jaw-droppingly amazing -- for its era, and even for now.

[identity profile] 2015-08-27 12:54 am (UTC)(link)

. . .


. . . seriously, I'm still just -- what -- FIVE DAYS???

It's a miracle that they wound up with a movie at all. Thank god Ophüls recovered in time.

Lurking with great appreciation

[identity profile] caitlin s (from 2015-08-26 06:03 pm (UTC)(link)
Just wanted to pop out momentarily from lurking as one of the Patreon crowd to say that this review was an absolute pleasure to read (as was your review of Ondine, which actually increased my appreciation for that movie, which I wasn't sure could be done) and that while these posts make me thrilled to be a backer, I would be just as happy to simply be supporting this journal in general. Your posts always lead to learning things I never knew, following one link and then another and another to ever more new and wondrous treasures of the internet and the world (Etruscan funerary relics, heretofore unknown-to-me incarnations of sirens, Lovelace and Babbage, Alan Turing, Rejected Princesses, the list goes on). I hope you start getting the sleep and the brain-rest you need and know that some of your backers are just glad you exist, entirely regardless of word counts and bonus art stuff. Your words always=art.

(I have never seen this movie and now I must, though I suspect it will harder to watch than your review was to read. That poem made me giggle).
gwynnega: (lordpeter mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-08-26 09:07 pm (UTC)(link)
A wonderful write-up. The film sounds pretty great. I'm a huge fan of James Mason, but Robert Ryan is one of my favorite players of villains.
gwynnega: (coffee poisoninjest)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-08-27 05:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Crossfire was the one that really impressed me. He was also in one of my dad's movies, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, which I really need to see one of these days!