For better or for worst, Max Ophüls is a director who keeps surprising me. First, I loved "Letter from an Unknown Woman". Then I disliked, in different degrees, "La Ronde", "Madame de..." and "Libelei". Then I was in awe (still am) of "Lola Montès" (for some reason I thought I had written something on it a few months ago). All of these I saw for the first time on the big screen. Then I rented the DVDs for "The Recless Moment" and "Le Plaisir" and neither made a great impact, except for the two lead performances on the former (Joan Bennett and James Mason). And now "Caught" - and again, I was taken by surprise and I am truly fascinated by it. Why?, you may ask.
I need to summarise the plot. Leonora is a poor young girl from Denver, dreaming big and big money in LA, who meets a millionaire (played by Robert Ryan). He is manipulative and decides to marry her to spite his psychiatrist (such a great premise for a happy life). Only married life is a bit of a disappointment and she decides to leave her husband and get a job as a receptionist at a doctor's surgery and proceeds to fall in love with James Mason's character.
So far, so 1940's Hollywood melodrama. Only it isn't really. Because it's slightly off from the standard of the time. I wouldn't consider it as a film noir, but I think I'm in a minority. It's ambiguous. There is a character who is overtly cruel and on a power trip, and yet we are revealed why Leonora loves him. But here again, we are on shaky ground. We are asked to put our loyalty with a character, played magnificently by Barbara Bel Geddes, who may deep down be much less pure than she, herself, thinks. And the battle for control/independence that is at the heart of the film is something to behold.
Barbara Bel Geddes takes over from Joan Fontaine as the heroine ("Letter..." was Ophüls' previous film) and is simply fantastic as the woman who steadly faces up to a manipulative husband and tries to find her own path in life. And so are James Mason in a atypical hero/love interest sort of role and Robert Ryan in the controling Howard Hughes-inspired milionaire. Ophüls' touches are everywhere. I like some of his camera work, and certainly his mise-en-scene. I lost count on the number of doors closing (on- or offscreen), creating more and more barriers between the characters. But best of all, there's a scene where James Mason's character is talking about Leonora's disappearance after a date with him, and the camera dances around, focusing the empty desk left by the secretary.
I'm not sure if it's better than "Lola Montès" or "Letter from an Unknown Woman", but it did please me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And maybe, just maybe, it might be my new favourite film of Max Ophüls .