Robert Ryan, an actor who was so integral to the key action genres of the postwar Hollywood cinema, was also ahead of his time, for the resonance and emotional intelligence with which his performances revealed the true roots of a film’s violence. The quintessential noir and western heavy, Ryan was frighteningly credible—bruising and bilious—as the war-damaged army vet and anti-Semitic murderer in Crossfire (1947), the insinuating outlaw of The Naked Spur (1953), the roiling home-front bigot of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Tall, dark, handsome, and self-evidently capable of violence, Ryan men exude a seething anger and a knowing meanness from which they themselves are not excluded. The actor, wrote film producer and theater director John Houseman, was “an athlete in his youth, a disturbing mixture of anger and tenderness who had reached stardom by playing mostly brutal, neurotic roles.” Six foot four and the campus heavyweight boxing champion in his Dartmouth days, Ryan seemed to loom uncomfortably over his films; Houseman saw in him the qualities of the “stiff-necked, emotional warrior” Coriolanus, and cast him accordingly in a 1954 stage production of Shakespeare’s play. That heavy-tongued tragic figure—so virile at battle, so contemptuous of the inferior masses, so artless in politics—has a parallel in one of Ryan’s scariest and most subtle performances, as the wealthy, charismatic, neurotic, and intimidating Howard Hughes stand-in and abusive husband in Caught (1949). Max Ophuls’s psychologically sophisticated film has much to say about gender and capital, and Ryan’s performance in particular has much to say about masculinity, power, and insecurity.
Caught opens with Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes) and a girlfriend paging through a catalog of luxury goods, picking out the gowns and jewelry they’d wear in their fantasy. Thanks to charm school, Leonora lands a job as a department-store model, twirling in her furs in front of prospective customers and reciting the price to take home what you see in front of you. And thanks to that job, she lands a husband: Smith Ohlrig (Ryan), a famously reclusive baron of industry, who locks her up in a gilded cage. To whom does the film’s title refer, the captive wife or the unimaginably rich husband she snags? Both seem equally trapped in a matrix of desire and expectation; Ohlrig also seems trapped in his own skin.
The first time Leonora meets Ohlrig, she mistakes him for one of his employees. Ohlrig’s panderer (Curt Bois) has procured her for an evening on the millionaire’s yacht—he found her on the sales floor—when Ohlrig pulls up in his dinghy. Whisking her off in his convertible, he seems, at first, strapping and decisive. But when this woman (whom he’s soon calling “a dime a dozen”) refuses to come into his house, he becomes very sensitive to how she responds to his power. Ryan’s face is crisscrossed by shadows in an asymmetrical two-shot—Bel Geddes is fully lit in the foreground, but even so, our eyes are guided along the diagonal up to Ryan’s creased, expectant forehead, his suddenly slack, sad mouth.
According to Arthur Laurents, Caught’s credited screenwriter, who rewrote Abraham Polonsky’s adaptation of Libbie Block’s novel Wild Calendar, Ophuls was explicit in his intention “to make a picture about Howard Hughes.” How come? “Because I hate him,” said Ophuls. The two had collaborated unhappily at RKO, and Laurents, in his memoir Original Story By, colorfully recalls Ophuls imploring him to “make [Ohlrig] an idiot! An egomaniac! Terrible to women! Also to men! Make him a fool! Make him die! Kill him off!” Laurents writes that he was inspired by an anecdote about a Hughes prospect who got his attention by refusing to play his games, and despite eventually backing off on depicting Hughes’s specific eccentricities, the script landed on some home truths about his hang-ups. Ohlrig is in psychoanalysis with a doctor who, in dialogue betraying the fashionable Freudianism of forties Hollywood, diagnoses Ohlrig’s recurrent “heart attacks” as psychosomatic symptoms of his fear of powerlessness. To spite his shrink, who believes him too afraid, too suspicious to marry, Ohlrig impulsively resolves to wed Leonora—then subjects her to alternating neglect and torment. Leonora stays up past midnight in evening clothes in the sitting room of their Long Island mansion, waiting for him to come home; when he finally does, with a host of business associates, he flies into a jealous rage at her for playing the good hostess and charming one of his guests. Leonora is too proud to admit that she married Ohlrig for money; Ohlrig is too proud to not have his wealth respected, and resents her for reminding him of that.
The way Ryan shows Ohlrig’s anger is to play him as a man constantly trying to not be angry. When Ophuls’s camera glides close enough, you can see every muscle in his cheeks clenching. Confronting Leonora, he looms over a pool table, repetitively rolling the cue ball across the surface in the same obsessive triangle as he lays into her in his coolly rational cadences: she’s lying to herself and to him when she says she loves him, she’s just a grubby little low-class charm-school gold digger. Ophuls’s blocking has Ryan facing away from Bel Geddes for much of the scene, assuming a posture of dominant remove as he worries over the pool table, tossing the ball to himself or rubbing it unconsciously in a self-soothing sort of gesture. Ryan’s face in this scene alternates between grimaces of recognition and ostentatious sneers of disinterest, showing us the mask of cruelty Ohlrig dons for his own benefit. The mask drops as soon as Leonora exits, defying him with her willingness to forsake his fortune—his body seizes abjectly in the throes of another one of his attacks, his muscles going stiff and clumsy, erratic.
Leonora leaves Ohlrig and finds a room in a tenement and a job with a slum doctor played by James Mason; the two begin a romance forged in mutual ennobling struggle. Mason (here making his American debut) is so suave a screen presence, so in sync with Ophuls’s frictionless camera movements, that Ryan seems all the more brutish in comparison. When Ohlrig visits Leonora at her apartment—confessing he has had her watched, promising that things have changed, and begging her to come back—Ophuls’s camera finds its way through the clutter of the apartment in a way that Ryan, in his bulky coat, can’t; he winces as the elevated train rattles past, and speeds up his tempo. Ryan had such a soft voice—such a “Now look at what you made me do” voice—and he emphasizes its breathiness in this scene to show how Ohlrig’s manipulativeness exists alongside genuine discomfort. When Leonora succumbs to his apology act, he hustles her and himself out of the apartment as if he can’t bear to be inside it another second. His entreaties are what we would now call gaslighting, but the vulnerability he dangles in front of Leonora has a core of truth, too, glimpsed in the acute claustrophobia he feels outside of his own castle.
When Leonora returns to her Prince Charming, he locks her back up in her tower, and retreats to another of his parlor games: a pinball machine, where he seethes over his rejection to a soundtrack of rattling and ringing. The violence in Caught is almost entirely psychological, and the acting is similarly sublimated. With Ohlrig’s toys and his tics, the way he pounds his fist into his hand or paces when angry, we again see the Freud of post–World War II Hollywood, in Method acting’s emphasis on the subconscious. Some of Ryan’s gestures, though they have the feeling of having been worked out ahead of time, are cousins to the “psychological” acting of Brando putting on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront. (In Ohlrig’s first scene with Leonora, after he meets her by his boat, he has a little captain’s hat that he puts on when he senses his authority questioned.)
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