Max Ophüls—the world-weary camera virtuoso whose tracking shots seemed to cleave space—is one of a handful of major figures in film history who can’t be credibly claimed by any one particular country, but seem instead to belong to cinema as a whole. Born in Germany as Max Oppenheimer, Ophüls first found success as a theater director in Austria and then returned home to start a film career, which was cut short in 1933 for reasons that don’t need to be explained. From there, Ophüls embarked on a career-long international tour, which found him directing movies in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States—many of them set elsewhere (Vienna was a favorite subject), and in the pre-World War past.
Though Ophüls’ last and best-known films—La Ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings Of Madame De…, and Lola Montes, the latter his only work in widescreen or color—were French productions, his longest continuous stint was in America, where he lived from 1941 to 1950. Yet, for a long time, it’s been easier for Stateside viewers to see Ophüls’ later French films (distributed by Criterion on home video and Hulu Plus) than any of his American productions.
Olive Films seems to be working to rectify this. The label, which specializes in the once-rare and the long-overdue, brought the director’s most highly regarded American production, Letter From An Unknown Woman, back into print in 2012. Now, they’ve put out a Blu-ray of 1949’s Caught, Ophüls’ best non-period film.
It’s a no-frills release, feature-free, booklet-less, and inelegantly chaptered. The packaging makes no mention of the director’s non-American work, and refers to him exclusively as “Max Opuls,” a credit forced upon him by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the producer and star of his first American release, who thought “Ophüls” sounded too much like “awfuls.” The crisp transfer preserves the spots and scratches of the source print, which lend the image a certain lightly worn rep-house charm. Regardless, it’s an essential release, if only because it contains a masterpiece whose Stateside availability was previously limited to bleary bootlegs and a now-gone standard-def Netflix stream.
Caught follows charm-school grad “Leonora” Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes, pre-nose-job) as she marries and then leaves sociopathic industrialist Smith Ohlrig (a chillingly charismatic Robert Ryan), falls in love with lefty pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason, in his American debut), and then finds her estranged husband dogging her at every turn. It sets up a whole lot of binary oppositions: wealth versus work, charm versus authenticity, materialism versus needfulness.
Ohlrig and Quinada are diametric to each other. The former—based on Ophüls’ onetime employer, Howard Hughes—is an all-American sweet-talker who calls his wife his “best paid employee,” and boasts about being a self-made man despite having been born super-rich. (His name sounds like “oil rig,” the source of the Hughes Tool Company fortune.) Quinada, on the other hand, is tactless, but honest; he is Leonora’s boss, but struggles to treat her as an equal. Ohlrig showers her with useless jewels, while Quinada spends his paycheck to buy her a much-needed winter coat—and so on and so forth. The meaning of the film lies not in the positions defined by these two characters, but in the way Leonora—and the film itself—moves between them. Like Ophüls’ weightless camerawork, which manages to pass through a half-dozen walls over the course of the movie, it turns the movement between subjects into a subject in and of itself.
That movement—that is, Leonora’s movement—is conveyed with the sort of virtuosity that made Ophüls an idol for generations of lens-geek directors. (There are plenty of parallels with The Master, directed by Ophüls superfan Paul Thomas Anderson—from the gliding department store scenes to the unseen yacht party to the conceit of a protagonist being alternately attracted and repelled by a charismatic kook who hates psychiatrists.) Ophüls’ directing style is closely associated with the 19th-century settings of his most well-known films; transplanted into the then-present, it seems even more radical. Instead of drawing rooms, the camera cuts and pivots through cramped apartments and offices, always moving along emotional lines, conveying feeling through sweeping changes in composition. It packs a wallop.
Caught is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films.