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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A "Money Isn't Everything" Noir


Max Ophul's Caught (1949) On Blu-Ray

Of that category labeled Bummer Noir, Caught may be a weakest of Max Ophuls pics lensed in the US, though like all his done stateside, it's offbeat and never less than compelling. Reviews missed the point and called it "rusty, creaky melodramatic machinery," which sounds near right. Modern observers supply redress by citing a Euro director's trenchant observe of Yank materialism on most destructive setting, and so voila, Caught's a classic. Fact is, it sunk like stone in '49 and pleased nobody, domestic rentals a lowly $511K, the sorriest number on Metro books that year except for Tension, a cheapie noir done in-house. These were dimmest candles on the lion's 25th Anniversary cake. Releasing Caught was a favor done by Leo for David Loew, indie producer, family connected, and talent/money behind Enterprise Pictures, would-be oasis for film artists who wanted off studio treadmills. By fall '48, Enterprise was broke and floundering, Caught their last before giving up rented space at Harry Sherman's Hollywood lot.


Enterprise would need a big bank hypo, as in $300K, to keep making movies, but lenders wanted to wait and see how a final three from them would perform at wickets, optimism a keynote since MGM was distributing No Minor Vices, Force Of Evil, and finally, Caught. All three tanked, and so went Enterprise.  Caught had been most expensive of the trio, its negative cost $1.5 million. Loew's selling arm was flummoxed on how to push such a narrative: Poor girl marries rich, is miserable, meets medico James Mason, ties up loose ends by, among other things, still-borning a child to pave way for happy end, a sour note Caught still sounds. Since when were dead babies occasion for smiles and fresh beginning? Parents particularly would have found this off-putting, only they were down streets watching Metro fare with greater promise: Little Women (the company's silver jubilee selection), Command Decision, and Take Me Out To The Ball Game, each with longer reach for grosses.


Merchandising led with its chin, but how could effective ads derive from such an unpromising premise? Waitress Marries Millionaire! shouted one, You Think She's Lucky --- She Wants To Be A Waitress Again!. This was like peddling Joan Crawford's shopgirl again, only that stock had sat on shelves since the early 30's and patronage was, by 1949, lots choosier. James Mason, lately in from Britain to try America luck, offered faint hope for marquees, and Barbara Bel Geddes was untried beyond a few at RKO that weren't vehicles for her. Delegates at the 2/49 anniversary sales meet were "admonished" (Variety) by both Louis Mayer and distrib chief William F. Rogers to "be aggressive" and get MGM product into "new territories," this a tall enough order where there was good currency, which Leo's competitor's certainly had, most more negotiable than Caught. Mayer never-minded that: "We're going to make pictures. It's up to you boys to sell them." Loew's east coast division, which Rogers headed, ID'ed quick a dog with fleas, and was known to deep-six stuff that emitted smell. To their practiced minds, all of Enterprise barked, and was for putting down. No Minor Vices, Force Of Evil, and Caught weren't really even MGM productions, after all.


Caught is on Blu-Ray after years gone begging for home release (there was a Region Two DVD as part of an Ophuls group). Quality is upgraded from listless 16mm that was tough to locate even in that compromised state. Caught takes swipes at Howard Hughes via nutsy tycoon clearly suggested by him, played by Robert Ryan. Hughes was said to have vetted the mimicry and let same pass, which makes him either thick-skinned or tone deaf to slam this certainly was. Ryan's "Smith Ohlrig" is neurotic, hypochondriac, and a control freak at cosmic level, these aspects of Hughes not so known beyond insiders during the 40's, but decided catnip for 70's and afterward bio/tell-alls. That Ryan could be a nasty piece of work on screen was understood after Crossfire. Of disturbed types he'd essay after the war, Caught may be a most disturbing. Ophuls lets Bel Geddes be less sympathetic by selling herself to such a tyrant, a deal she'll close for pure sake of cash and luxuries. The Money Won't Buy Happiness song as composed by Hollywood (not practiced by them, but preached to us) was never louder sung than here. Did critics and indifferent trade sense a false note?

1 Comments:

Blogger Dave K said...

Caught CAUGHT last year for the first time. Has a screwy appeal... for me anyway. Ryan as a nasty nutjob is pretty hard to beat!

2:10 PM  

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