The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.
In 1946 Max Ophuls was brought on to direct Vendetta (1950) after the film’s director, Preston Sturges, left to focus on another project. The film would have been the German-born director’s first American feature, but he was replaced after one week. Accounts of the event vary: Sturges claims that producer Howard Hughes did not want to employ a “foreigner,” while others claim Hughes was frustrated by Ophuls’s slow shooting schedule. The experience left Ophuls with a rather poor opinion of Hughes, and three years later Ophuls directed Caught (1949), a film inspired, at least in part, by the brief time he spent working for Hughes.
Caught was the last film made by the independent company Enterprise Productions. Enterprise had the rights to the book Wild Calendar, which Ophuls was slated to direct. Originally meant as a Ginger Rogers vehicle, the story was changed quite dramatically under Ophuls’s supervision. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents recalls meeting with the director about the script: “When I met with Ophuls, he said, ‘I don’t want to do that story, I want to do the Howard Hughes story.’ I asked why. He said, ‘Because I hate Hughes.’” The feeling was likely mutual, as Hughes frequently referred to the director simply as “the oaf.”
Oddly enough, the two actors wanted for the film, Robert Ryan and Barbara Bel Geddes, were under contract to Hughes himself at the time, meaning Hughes had to review the script. To everyone’s surprise, Hughes approved it on the condition that his character was made slightly less like him. Years later, Robert Ryan told an audience at UCLA that “Howard knew all about it and even encouraged me to ‘play him like a son of a bitch.’”
Despite the ease of getting approval from Hughes, the rest of the production did not go as smoothly. On the first day, Ophuls reported to work with the shingles. When after several weeks his condition had not improved the studio reluctantly fired him. John Berry was brought on to direct the feature, but his vision for the film was much more realistic than the writer or cinematographer Lee Garmes had imagined. By the tenth day of production he had fallen ten days behind and was dismissed. A few days later Ophuls returned to the set to resume filming. To his chagrin there was not enough money to reshoot all of Berry’s work, and scenes from the Charm school would remain in the film.
Andrew Sarris has pointed out the way in which Ophuls utilizes camera movement in all of his films. “If all the dollies and cranes in the world snap to attention when his name is mentioned,” Sarris writes, “it is because he gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of the cinema.” Yet it is clear that Garmes too had a great impact on the look of the film. George Turner explains, “There was an inside joke that ‘Max would go nuts’ if deprived of big sets, dollies, and cranes; at the same time, the picture is full of the type of locked-down, artistically composed shots for which Garmes is noted.” As Constance Penley says, “The oppressiveness of the mise-en-scène toward the end of the film is marked.”
Ophuls directed only four films in Hollywood (not including his short turn at the helm of Vendetta). Caught, Pauline Kael claims, “is probably the most American of Max Ophuls’s American movies.” Garmes sums up Ophuls’s American experience, explaining, “He got a very raw deal in Hollywood. But if you look at Caught you’ll feel that the camera was looking through a crack of a window or a crack of a door, or that the camera was never placed in a spot in the whole picture that was conventional.” This film serves as a wonderful example of what Ophuls was able accomplish during his brief time in Hollywood.
Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.
Kael, Pauline. 5001 Nights at the Movies: A Guide from A to Z. New York: Henry Holt, 1982. Print.
McGilligan, Patrick. Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s. Berkeley: University of California, 1991. Print.
Penley, Constance. Feminism and Film Theory. New York: Routledge, 1988. Print.
Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema. Directors and Directions, 1929–1968. New York: Dutton, 1968. Print.
Turner, George. “‘Caught’: A Lost Classic.” American Cinematographer: The International Journal of Film & Digital Production Techniques 79.5 (1998): 100-06. Print.