By Isaac Butler
Anne and I have sporatically been making our way through Netflix's catalogue of varous classic films. It all started when we were in France and caught a screening of the Fritz Lang film Clash by Night (adapted from the play by Clifford Odetts) which put us on a Lang kick that took us to The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. Somehow, we digressed to Carol Reed's Night Train To Munich and Hitchcock's Notorious and films featuring the late, great Robert Ryan (who was in Clash by Night). So... in other words, now we're on a Robert Ryan kick, and this is how we wound up seeing Caught, starring Ryan and James Mason, written by Arthur Laurents (!!) and directed by Max Ophuls, which is instantable at this very moment.
Caught is fascinating and dated in equal measure. It falls into the long list of movies from the period that contain as their central anxieties questions having to do with women's changing place in society, with what happens when the roles get so prescribed that all one's choices are bad. In Caught's case, Barbara Bel Geddes plays Leonora Eames, a kind of Lily Bart without money, a woman whose sole ambition is to marry for money and be kept by a wealthy, powerful man. To that end, she works as a floor model at a department store and takes charm classes by night. She meets and winds up marrying Robert Ryan's Smith Ohlrig, a multi-millionaire tycoon who marries her in a fit of pique induced by his therapist advising him against it. he then proceeds to neglect and emotionally abuse her until she leaves him to go work for James Mason's Larry Quinada, a pediatrician working in the immigranty slums of Broome street. She disguises her identity, Larry falls in love with her and she with him, but it tunrs out she's pregnant with Ohlrig's child, the result of a short-lived reconciliation caused by his (false) promise to change his ways.
All this is the standard stuff of domestic melodrama, except that the two male leads are two of the best actors of their generaiton and Max Ophuls shoots it like a fucking wizard. It's what happens to resolve the plot that's so fascinating. So here come the spoilers:
Leonora ends up having to return to Smith due to her pregnancy. She begs him for a divorce, which he says he'll grant her, so long as he gets the kid. She refuses and winds up trapped in her bedroom, constantly tormented by him awakening her at all hours of the night for psychological torture. Eventually, Smith almost dies in a freak pinball-machine-angina-incident (I'm totally serious) and then she escapes him with Quintana via the baby dying after which it is implied they'll live happily ever after.
I cannot imagine a movie being made today in which a baby being born prematurely and dying is celebrated. And Caught actively celebrates it. When James Mason, tears welling in his eyes, tells Leonora that "sure, the babies going to die, but now you can be free!" we're meant to take this at face value. The score swells, she begins in smile, they embrace and press cheek to cheek and sob to celebrate their tragic good fortune. The film ends with Quintana's obstetrician-partner telling him in the most tossed off way that the baby died as Quintana goes into Leonora's hospital room to start his new life with her.
Of course, one of the reasons why such a film could not be made today is that abortion is legal and no-fault divorce exists, even in New York. Caught is a film that demands a world in which women are fully subject to the whims of men. Absent that, it feels preposterous. Whether or not this makes the film feminist or not I cannot really parse without more coffee, but, given that the Republican VP nominee supported a personhood amendment that would grant zygotes full human rights, it's a fascinating reminder of the kind of world the GOP wants to return us to.