Leonora “Lee” Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) can barely scrape together $10 for charm and finishing school but it’s a big investment in her future. The car hop wants to step up to modelling, where she hopes meet and marry a millionaire. Despite her dream, she feels so cheap about this way of climbing that she almost skips the yacht party where she ends up meeting the rich Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan). Smith is standoffish, blunt, anti-party, anti-charm school, and anti-marriage, while the timid Leonora remains anti-stepping into his home, even on the fourth date.
Smith claims not to care, but then his analyst diagnoses his heart problems as anxiety attacks, triggered by any opposition or obstacle to his possessive and tyrannical personality. Smith spites his analyst and shows he’s able to get everything he wants by impulsively “acquiring” Lee through a hasty marriage. Predictably, it’s not only loveless but toxic. The erratic tycoon always suspects she’s in it for the money and demands she be the perfect hostess and devoted wife while he publicly humiliates and emotionally abuses her.
The bored and unfulfilled Lee gets a job as receptionist for Dr. Quinada (James Mason), who is anti-wealth, dedicates himself to treating the poor, criticizes Lee’s fancy hair and make-up and her charm school ideas. Even so, they fall in love, and only after Quinada proposes does he learn she’s married to a scary control freak, is pregnant with his baby and kept prisoner by his threat to take custody of the child.
The above plot points show all the ways Lee is caught: between the dream of self-improvement and of prince charming, and the reality of marriage to a monster, between a man who loves money and one who’s bitter about capitalism, between love with hard work and possible poverty, and misery with financial security. She’s visually placed between options and at the center of choices and debates, even in one nicely done scene she’s not even in. When Quinada and his associate Dr. Hoffman (Frank Ferguson) discuss the absent Lee, the camera swings back and forth to follow their conversation while keeping her desk and empty chair as the center. Later when her two men meet and ask her to decide her future, she paces to points where only one man is in the shot with her at a time.
Smith is a Howard Hughes-ian neurotic giant in a house like Charles Foster Kane’s, massive and packed with finery and expensive playthings but emotionally blocked and empty. Long staircases, huge columns and vast spaces divide the couple as much as the camera work does, in one shot placing Smith in the foreground as a barrier between Lee and her doctor. By contrast the doctor’s office is small messy and crowded, but warm and vibrant, focused on children and care.
Everything tells you money isn’t happiness, from Smith’s problems to Quinada’s statements to Smith’s opportunistic employee Franzi (Curt Bois), who tells Lee her luck is “tough” and suggests she just enjoy the money and go for retail therapy. But the great acting by Ryan, so childish and sadistic, and Mason, bitter but elegant with moments of sweetness, keeps both their characters from being cartoonish message vehicles. Bel Geddes builds confidence and ends up with a thousand-yard stare that reminded me a bit of Kathleen Byron’s in Black Narcissus. This noirish melodrama is very good but cold throughout, and fitting the “fairy tale gone bad” plot, has an odd, dark idea of a happy ending, one which has Lee caught in one last dilemma with Smith’s life in the balance, and then suffering (spoiler) a miscarriage that frees her to be with Quinada.
This was James Mason’s first Hollywood movie, and this is a good place to mention how funny he was in the bar scene with the drunk woman who kept trying to bust in between him and Bel Geddes. Caught was adapted by Arthur Laurents from the novel Wild Calendar by Libbie Block, but director Max Ophuls’ experience with Howard Hughes during the making of Vendetta (1950) led him to model Smith Ohlrig more closely after the tycoon.