Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)
#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler)
#6. The Set-Up (US / Wise)
For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.
This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.
#5. Caught (US / Ophüls) (rewatch)
1949: the year Max Ophüls dissected American living. Between 1941 and 1950 he was living there in exile. In that time he made only four films (a healthy output by today’s standards, but on the low end for the time). Two of those, Caught and The Reckless Moment, were released in 1949, the only ones of his career to be set in America. Each perform a visual audit on different aspects of peddled American ideologies and societal divides, specifically as they manifest and are bred in post-war women. Even if 1949 were a cinematic dead zone (it’s not), it would still be notable on the strength of these two films alone.
Caught is thematically blunt. James Mason’s do-good doctor is a mouthpiece for deeper and more connected living. Every character talks about money; having it and not having it, wanting it and not wanting it. The key to the film comes from Laura Crossley’s writing on it; “it is in the gap between the narrative proper and its presentation where the film finds its subtle power”*. One would assume that visual reinforcement would just make the blunt more blunt, but it does the opposite. Ophüls lays out a parallel interrogation using bodies and space, elevating Caught into greatness because it takes that thematic bluntness and keenly translates it into an emotional realm. Through blocking we are given us access to Leonora’s struggle, something that the dialogue, often full of judgment towards her, threatens to erase. She is on the world’s loneliest abacus, sliding back and forth between two men with opposite lives, finances, ideologies, temperaments, and futures. Ophüls uses his trademark fluidity to embody Leonora’s (Barbara Bel Geddes) wavering. As her agency, doubts, circumstances, and subjugation alter and shift, the camera constantly recalibrates its characters and the space to reflect that. New angles are found in motion. The frame is never shared, but cordoned off. Actors are often dwarfed by one another. The screen is one of halves. Sometimes a third person or an object interrupts somewhere in the middle.
Smith’s (Robert Ryan) mansion becomes the a prison of open space, a permanent waiting game where sleep is for the free and the piano never stops. Later on (in a truly beautiful scene), the camera glides around the outside of a crowded dance floor in the East Side (the most trademark Ophüls shot in the film). Leonora and Quinada (Mason) attempt to dance in the center. There is little room to move. They don’t dance so much as shuffle. Toes are stepped on — whose? Who can tell. It’s all so silly that a moment of spontaneous laughter occurs between them. It is a moment of such naturalism, aided by the distance of camera-as-observer, that it’s as if we’ve witnessed something between two people, not two characters. It is the freest Leonora is in the entire film, packed in the crowd like a sardine, the opposite of Smith’s baroque suffocations. It is one of the many constant ways Caught’s visual schema tells Leonora’s story, a bumpy road that dismantles and rebuilds her values.
In writing about Too Late for Tears I talked about the commodification of specifically female riches as depicted by Lizabeth Scott’s Jane and Barbara Bel Geddes’s Leonora. Rounding out the Materialistic Trio is another character I’ll write more about later: Ann Todd’s Mary Justin from The Passionate Friends. Here is a woman (not American like the other two) that made the same choice Leonora does: to marry for security and comfort. But Claude Rains is no Robert Ryan, and Ann Todd is no Barbara Bel Geddes. Both marriages function as a business transaction. The difference is that Ann Todd and Claude Rains have an amicable relationship, with freedom in the bargain. And Mary isn’t the young tenderfoot Leonora is, even in flashbacks. She knowingly gave up love for autonomy, money, and comfort. She flirts with making another choice every so often, but knows herself too well to take the plunge. Mary’s trouble is the curse of knowing who you are, and knowing that the love you want isn’t the love for you.
Jane knows what she wants, and Mary knows who she is, but Leonora’s journey is one of hard-knocks self-discovery. As played by Barbara Bel Geddes (a favorite of mine, Midge 4ever), she’s imbued with uncommon down-to-earth texture. She’s not the Girl Next Door or the Glamour Girl or the Sexpot. She is easily persuadable but also her own person. She stands up for herself just as often as she does not. She is wishy-washy, making decisions and then doubling back on them, because false hope takes longer to shake then movies would have you believe. She convinces herself that she married Smith for love, because even though she wants that ever-present mink coat, she also believes love should come with money. Rich husband plus love equals success to Leonora, but her friend Maxine is shown as a comparative extreme (she doesn’t need the love). Maxine alternately encourages and chastises her to make the necessary sacrifices to afford Dorothy Dale’s Charm School, and to make the most of an invitation she receives for a yacht party (where she will meet Smith). Leonora can only begin to self-actualize when she can be honest with herself about why she married Smith, and to shed the values she’s been sold all her life. The price for that freedom is high (see also: The Set-Up which also exacts a physical price for freedom).
Leonora’s values are datedly confronted by the two men who reside on either end of that lonely abacus; Larry Quinada and Smith Ohlrig. Played by James Mason and Robert Ryan respectively, each role comes with its own challenge. For Mason, it’s that his character touts a lot of pushy altruism, seeing Leonora as a bit of a sheep with potential. Mason has to represent a lot and preach a lot, all while falling in love. He lends a wonderful sense of irritable apprehension to Quinada’s love that counterbalances his lectures. Meanwhile Robert Ryan plays a loosely fictionalized Howard Hughes, and his challenge is to impart a psychological weight to a man that also functions as representation. He is capitalism as sickness. Power as sickness. These things distort him physically and mentally. He is cursed, made inhuman by conducting all aspects of his life as business. He marries Leonora to prove a point, quickly hating himself for this rash move. He is incapable of believing that a woman would marry him for anything but his money, making her an employee and him resentful and sadistic. Smith Ohlrig is only ever surrounded by people who are paid to be there, while Larry Quinada is only ever surrounded by people he aims to help.
Caught’s Cinderella Gone Wrong story has a lot of overlap with the cycle of 40s Gothic films. It also awkwardly gets lumped in with a lot of noir. This is a romantic drama with a strange European sensibility. The Reckless Moment doesn’t share that sensibility, but both are about the uneasy contract made between women and society. You can either be spread thin with no sense of self or your struggles or become a product sold to the most affluent bidder. It’s easy to show women who are openly miserable, who know why they are miserable, or who’ve got patriarchy’s number. It’s more interesting, and more challenging, to show women who are trapped in ways they don’t understand. Joan Bennett’s Lucia (The Reckless Moment) never wavers from her position as the do-it-all Mom, even in the most trying and dangerous of times. She doesn’t see her life the way Donnelly (Mason again) does. Leonora puts herself through Charm School just so she can offer herself up as a product for purchase like the mink coat she models (“Forty-nine ninety five!”). Both women are led by preset paths, and both are willing participants. And I love that about these films. They aren’t about trailblazing women striking out against convention. They aren’t about the Katharine Hepburns of the world. These women act within conventions. They both conform and rebel, but their journeys are complex, fraught, and compromised, the way journeys, and life, always are.
(* “Indicting Americana: how Max Ophuls exposed the American Dream in Caught and The Reckless Moment” by Laura Crossley)