Director: Max Ophuls (La Ronde)
Writer: Arthur Laurents (supposedly from the novel “Wild Calendar” by Libbie Block)
Stars: Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason, Robert Ryan
The Story: A poor young women flips through a fashion magazine, wondering how she’ll ever get a mink coat. She gets her chance by marrying a dead-eyed tycoon who treats her like furniture. She finds the courage to flee her trap, taking a meager secretary job for a downwardly-mobile pediatrician. But she doesn’t suspect that she’s caught in more ways that one…
How it Came to be Underrated: Ophuls started and ended his career in Europe, only coming to America for a few years of very underrated movies.
Why It’s Great:
- Arthur Laurents (Rope, the books for “Gypsy” and “West Side Story”) died earlier this month at 92 and did great work right up to the end. For this movie, neither he nor Ophuls were happy with the book they were assigned. Instead, they would trade stories of the wickedness of Howard Hughes, who had screwed both of them earlier in their careers. They decided to turn this into a barbed portrait of people like Hughes (Ryan’s ice-cold-hate at its best) and the damage they cause.
- Girl-next-door Bel Geddes was great in movies like Vertigo, but she rarely got a chance to star. It’s ironic that she finally got to shine in a movie about a fashion model, which wasn’t her look at all, but Ophuls knew what he was doing. There’s no worse case of “miscasting” in Hollywood history than The Graduate, which was written for Robert Redford, who would have made so much more sense, given that the character’s parents are WASPs and everybody treats him like a big hunk. But they brilliantly cast nebbish-y newcomer Dustin Hoffman instead, because they understood that you don’t cast for how the character would actually look, you cast for how they feel. This character in Caught should probably look like Marilyn Monroe, but she feels mousy, so they cast mousy.
- This is a one of the first and best movies about the problem that dared not speak its name. Ophuls captures the cruel trap of snide assumptions: When you marry above your station, everyone assumes that you did it for mercenary reasons, but no one will say that out loud, which means that you’ll never have a chance to defend yourself. Bel Geddes is “living the dream”, so no one will believe her that it’s a nightmare. Every time she tries to tell anybody about her despair, they tell her to buy a new hat.
- A girl ruins her life to get a mink, which becomes a badge of shame, then she freezes rather than wear it, then makes her peace with a cloth coat: the symbol of humility. What a strange status symbol the mink coat was... Aside from the dead animal issues, they certainly weren’t flattering to anybody’s figure. And weren’t they hot?? Were these girls always cold? Was that the problem?
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two other great American movies by Ophuls are The Reckless Moment and Letter From an Unknown Woman. Another great proto-feminist noir is My Name is Julia Ross.
How Available Is It?: I featured this before on my round-up of unavailable movies, but now I’m happy to say that it’s available to watch instantly. As you can see from these stills, the print is a little soft, but watchable. Ophuls’s always-lush cinematography comes through.
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