Caught is a rags-to-riches-to-Crazytown story about a struggling car-hop who marries a controlling millionaire. Working stiff, Leonora Ames (Barbara Bel Geddes), is skimping on lunches to pay tuition for a course at the Dorothy Dale School of Charm, where Natalie Schafer teaches diction, makeup, and fencing. The aim of Dale School is to help pretty girls find suitable positions at places where they can meet rich men: hostessing, modeling, and so forth.
Leonora gets a job modeling furs at a toney store. She is scouted and propositioned by Franzi (Curt Bois), a creepy underling type (kind of a cross between Peter Lorre and Franklin Pangborn), whose job it is to procure girls for his boss, wealthy industrialist, Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan). Franzi invites Leonora to a party on a yacht, where she is sure to meet rich men, like his boss. She declines, saying she's not that kind of girl, but Franzi says, look, lady, we all know why you're here modeling mink.
This film is full of those moments: some man says, look, we all know why you went to charm school, so why don't you just relax and have a good time (nudge, leer). Girl says, well, sure I'd like to marry up, but I'm not that kind of girl.
Leonora winds up heading to the pier where the yacht is supposed to be, dressed uncomfortably and really regretting it. She is met by a turtlenecked man in a skiff who is heading out to a business meeting and who says he'll take her to the party after he has his meeting. Of course, he turns out to be Ohlrig himself and Leonora turns up the charm. He propositions her, she refuses, and asks to be taken home. Next we see Ohlrig on the psychoanalyst's couch (smoking) talking about Leonora being different, the kind of girl he should marry. His analyst tells him that would be a terrible idea, because Ohlrig is such a horrible narcissist who can love nobody, and it would only ruin this girl's life. This convinces Ohlrig to do exactly that: marry Leonora whatsername (he really doesn't know) and that'll show him. Stupid psychonalyst.
Naturally, they marry. Leonora truly does love him, for some reason, but Ohlrig is convinced she doesn't, so he shuts her away in a Long Island mansion while he works and works and works. When he's home, he's berating her and calling her a liar and a gold digger. Leonora is not an easy character to play with sympathy, but Barbara Bel Geddes is very convincing and natural dealing with Robert Ryan's blistering anger and coldness. It's a part that in less skilled hands could send this picture screaming into melodrama.
One night, after Ohlrig humilates his wife in front of a bunch of coworkers he's brought home late at night, she up and leaves him with nothing but the clothes on her back (and some jewels). Leonora talks her way into a job as a receptionist in a Lower East Side obstetrics and pediatric clinic staffed by handsome English doctor Larry Quinada (James Mason) and kindly Dr. Hoffman (character actor Frank Ferguson). Quinada thinks Leonora is kind of worthless and shallow, but she studies up and works late, eventually winning him over.
Just as things start to hum for Leonora, Ohlrig shows up at her rooming house, saying he had to admit, he didn't think she could make it without him, good thing he had her tailed so he could tell her so, please come home. Leonora decides to go with him on the condition that he spend more time with her and stop working so much. They spend the night together, but in the morning, Ohlrig is gone on a business trip. Back to the East Side Leonora goes, thinking, well, I gave it a shot.
A few months later, after she and Dr. Quinada have officially fallen in love, Leonora discovers she's pregnant. But she hadn't quite gotten around to telling Dr. Q she was married, let alone having had one evening of temporary reconcile with her husband about 12 weeks ago. Off to Long Island she goes to tell Ohlrig about the baby. He is DELIGHTED, because now he can keep her under his control forever on the threat of gaining custody of the child. He's rich, he can pay anyone to say anything, plus he knows about her and Dr. Q, and would divorce her on grounds of adultery, so he WINS the marriage. Dr. Quinada tries to reason with Ohlrig, but to no avail.
Thus trapped, Leonora descends into reclusive misery. She is either starving herself or is being starved to the point where even creepy Franzi can't stomach Ohlrig's treatment of her and quits the gravy train. This causes Ohlrig to have one of his stress-induced, psychosomatic heart attacks -- a plot point that is underdeveloped, but kind of important. Hearing him crash to the floor, the heretofore semi-catatonic, supposedly seven-ish months pregnant Leonora rushes to his side, realizes she may have a chance at escape and leaves him writhing on the floor without giving him his medication.
But Leonora can't quite abandon him and calls for an ambulence, collapsing into premature, guilt-ridden labor, convinced she's killed her husband. When she awakens, wracked with conscience, Dr. Quinada is by her side, telling her that the good news (sort of) is that Ohlrig isn't dead, but the bad news (also sort of) is that she will probably lose the baby. She does lose the baby, but gains a divorce (we think).
Caught was a dramatization of a novel called Wild Calendar, in which the character Smith Ohlrig is based on Howard Hughes. Director Max Ophuls hated Hughes, and amped up the cruelty of Robert Ryan's character in the film. Ophuls's noir lighting and moody, sweeping camera work make this film worth the head scratching you'll do over its message about women later.
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