March 18, 2009


Max Ophuls was a craftsman in 1940s Hollywood. Caught is one of his lesser films- berated by the New York Times critic of the time Bosley Crowther- but it deserves to be recognised and understood. I would argue that it is a deeply feminist film: concerned with topics that are unusual to see in a film from the 1940s or 1950s, and directed from the female point of view. The film concerns a girl, a shop girl in Los Angeles, and her fantasies and attempts to acheive those fantasies. She begins the film living in poverty, staring at the images of models wearing beautiful clothes and believing, partly through social pressure, that a girl's duty is to find a rich husband- a man who can provide mink (literally).

The story of the film in part is the way that she discovers that a heart of gold is worth more than a handful. She is faced with two men- a kind doctor who spends his time serving poor patients out on the East side of New York- and a proud, difficult and pathetic millionaire whom she marries at the beggining of the story. In that sense the story is conventional. But though the choice is framed typically, you will have already noticed the difference. Because before the story starts the girl marries the millionaire- the choice that she makes is firstly a choice to flee from him and then the choice between these two men. Marriage is a convention that we see should be discarded so that the girl can live with the virtuous doctor- instead of the millionaire who might destroy her. The other modern touch- and I do not really want to give away the story more than I should- is that the film hints at the possibility of abortion and the desirability of it.

That hint apart, the real argument here is about the reality of marriage. Does the girl's formal marriage to the millionaire bind her? In truth, such an argument as soon as you see what Ophuls has done, becomes an absurdity. Marriage cannot and should not bind one to cruelty- and the 'moral' choice is not to go with the millionaire. The doctor at one point makes an even more subtle point: when she tells him that the reason she still thinks about living with the millionaire is security, he points out that money is not the only form of security. By that he doesn't mean that there is much threat to her phsyical security: but that living with a husband who wants to dominate and not love her, she will be insecure. What Ophuls suggests very accurately is that marriage can become a prison- a prison with strong iron bars- and that the conventions of life can coerce. The point he makes is not particular to women alone: but in Ophuls demonstrates that in the period he made his films, the oppression of marriage hurt women more than most.

This is a very moody atmospheric film- but it is also a film with a point. A point about the socialisation of women into forming their lives into particular forms through materialistic magazines and a sexist culture: and a point about the way that marriage can be a prison as well as a liberator. What Ophuls suggests here is that the 'magazine' lifestyle is an illusion and masks the reality that a solid wage and a loving relationship are better than the gilded life of the super rich and the superficial consolations of lifeless convention.


Sean Jeating said...

Another good one, Gracchi. Thanks.

Hopefully not off topic, from father to son: Did you happen to watch Marcel Ophüls' documentary Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie?

James Higham said...

A point about the socialisation of women into forming their lives into particular forms through materialistic magazines and a sexist culture

Always the bane of women.

Joel said...

why I never thought it before .. thanks for this revelation

Gracchi said...

Cheers chaps. No I'd not come across that film Sean- must search it out!

James I'd agree though I'd extend the point to men as well- socialisation is a powerful tool for good and evil.

Joel cheers!