Three Kings & a Queen

Max Ophüls’ Caught (1949) takes all that stuff from ’30s movies about how thin the lines once were between working girls, wives, kept women, and prostitutes, and absolutely runs with it. It’s a spellbinder. It looks in on Barbara Bel Geddes, a mercurial mix of sincerity and unconscious but grasping ambition, just as she’s enrolling in charm school with the precise intention of snaring a rich husband. She gets her wish good and hard when she hooks up with Robert Ryan, playing a bitter, omnivorous effigy of Howard Hughes, who proposes to her only to make his shrink look bad. When Ryan stops paying attention to her—about five minutes after the ceremony—she takes up with James Mason, a nice-guy pediatrician with a practice in the slums, throwing Ryan into a rich and powerful snit-fit. It’s easy to guess who she’ll wind up with, but not how she’ll get there, or how nasty things will get before she does: this is a movie where the virtuous characters celebrate a miscarriage. It’s also worth checking out for Ryan’s performance as the seething, unreachable “Smith Ohlrig”. His barking, overdone angst hurt as many movies as it helped in the 1950s, but he put it all together in this one and just let that face do the talking. Ophuls’ famous camera moves are less grand here than in his European pictures but without being any more domesticated. Simple two-shots invisibly escalate  into sinuous figure-eights that wheel between and around the characters as we dissolve back and forth between their perspectives, and, in a troubled discussion about Bel Geddes between two of the male characters, the camera falls into a languorous back and forth between them that’d be ideal for a ping-pong match, but which slows with each pass over the chair where her character would normally be sitting. It’s a tender way of reminding us that the thing which all these men are arguing about is something more than empty air.

A few months back a friend on a forum, knocked out by just having seen Sweet Smell of Success, asked, “What other movies are there like that?”, and another friend answered,  “Remember in Ghost World when Steve Buscemi says ‘There are no other records like that’? Well, that’s how it is with Sweet Smell of Success.” Generally speaking that’s exactly damn correct, but if you put a gun to my head and insisted I cough up a title, the words “Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul” might well pop out of my mouth. It’s the only movie I know of that brings together enough of Sweet Smell’s elements, and in a classy enough way, to make it a worthy point of comparison. Both movies feature a menagerie of slithery, compromised creatures, each of them trying to outdo each other in unspeakable acts, set loose in the New York high-life, and captured in both cases by James Wong Howe’s high-contrast photography. But while they also share superficially rosy endings, Body and Soul’s has a crucial ambiguity that’s missing from our final view of J.J. Hunsecker’s sister crossing over to the sunny side of the street; smiling though he is, we can’t be sure that Rossen’s hero will make it to the next street corner alive. And if Abraham Polonsky’s dialog isn’t as memorably stinging as Odets and Lehman’s, it still comes plenty hard and fast, and without any of their forced zingers. (Polonsky, of course, would go on to direct exactly one film, the great Force of Evil, before being blacklisted. One has to believe that he made up half of the duo Billy Wilder had in mind when he issued his famous putdown of the Unfriendly Ten: “Of the ten, two had talent. The rest were just unfriendly”.) In form Body and Soul is just another one of Warner Brothers’ urban fables, this time built around that great boxing movie cliché, the fighter who crosses up the gamblers’ fix on the biggest bout of his life. (Has any such golden boy ever once existed?) John Garfield plays the Lower East Side kid who determines to take the quickest, straightest way out of the ghetto he can find. He’s surrounded by healthy influences but his patience have burned away like a fuse, and to get a title shot he delivers himself into the hands of a reptilian promoter-fixer who pours over him all the penthouse suites and sultry babes any American success story can handle. Howe shot the climactic bout on roller-skates, wielding a handheld camera; its newsreel look and whiplike rhythms would beat out Raging Bull by a third of a century. If I had to pick, I’d say Body and Soul is the better movie, too.

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