Max Ophüls, 1949
Starring: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks
Lucia Harper intervenes when her teenage daughter – away part of the time at art school – becomes involved with a slimy, older man, Ted. Ted says he will gladly leave her daughter, Bea, for a price, confirming Lucia’s suspicions. Bea refuses to believe her and meets with Ted late at night in their suburban, sea-side town. Ted admits that he needs money more than Bea, and in a fit of hysteria, she strikes him with a flashlight, believing she killed him. With her husband away on business, Lucia attempts to deal with it herself and finds him dead the next morning and, also believing Bea killed him, drags the body out into the bay. Soon after, an Irishman, Martin Donnelly, knocks on her door and wants $5,000 for the many suggestive letters than Bea apparently wrote to Ted. Donnelly soon begins to fall for Lucia and tries to save her from his ruthless boss.
Based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s novel The Blank Wall, Max Ophüls follow up to the similarly themed Caught is an excellent, underrated film that is unfairly ignored by audiences, particularly fans of ‘40s melodrama and film noir. The Reckless Moment is a comment on post-war life and an almost ironic foreshadowing of ‘50s TV shows like Leave it to Beaver, Lassie, and Father Knows Best that glorified conservative, heteronormative lifestyles where a dominant father figure goes off to work and a submissive wife stays home to cook, clean, and care for her two precocious children. Moments that would have been moments of comedy in the above shows – the son refusing to wear proper clothing, the artsy daughter displaying her stubborn individuality – instead stir up anxiety, death, and criminality.
The film takes an artful look at the repression of dreams, loss freedom, and a failure escape from the mundane normalcy of life. As with Caught, the film is incredibly claustrophobic and Bennett cannot escape her family – she simply has no privacy whatsoever. She claims to be OK with this, but the film certainly presents it in a negative light. She is also unable to come through as the family’s head and seems to be punished for her urge to protect her daughter, hide a corpse, and try to come up with bribery money. The film’s plot holes – namely that everything could be avoided if a rational mind took hold of the situation – can be excused by the fact that a lovely housewife is the protagonist. Frustratingly, she is unable to do anything without her husband’s consent. He is simply removed from the situation, a literal by-product of the war, as he is sent to Germany on an unnamed work assignment and does not know of the family’s troubles.
As much as this is about Lucia’s place in domestic life and her punishment when she goes beyond the lines of propriety, it is also about the broken dreams of a foreigner. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that in both Caught and The Reckless Moment, the outside force – a man who distracts a woman from her marriage – is the handsome James Mason, first playing a British doctor catering to the lower classes and then an Irish thug with a heart of gold. Bennett and Mason are both excellent and I could have watched their scenes together go on for at least another hour. They develop a strange intimacy almost within the first seen and he doesn’t feel physically threatening to her, not even during his introduction where he is left to wait in the house, surrounded by her aged father and children, cloistered in her domestic sphere.
There doesn’t seem to be any danger that Lucia is going to have a fully-fledged affair with Donnelly, but she obviously begins to enjoy the attention, as well as his solid, reassuring presence. Mason is perfect in the role and provides a mix of brashness and tenderness that makes it obvious why he is appealing to both Lucia and her family. Joan Bennett, on the other hand, breaks out of her femme fatale role from earlier films and is excellent as the fragile, stern, complex house wife. She previously starred in Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and was also in a number of films noir, though The Reckless Moment is one of her best roles. I know her from two famous, later roles as another family matriarch – in Dark Shadows and Suspiria. It is difficult not to think of these three characters overlapping on another, as both films and the TV show examine women’s changing roles contrasted by horror, death, and murder.
Fontaine is surrounded by a number of solid actors, including Geraldine Brooks (Possessed) as the earnest, naïve, hysterical daughter who thinks she knows best. She’s a memorable presence, even though we don’t see a lot of her, and slightly invokes Vera in Mildred Pierce. Henry O’Neill (Shadow of the Thin Man, Tortilla Flat) is solid and dependable as Lucia’s dear old dad and TV actor Roy Roberts (The Enforcer) is both menacing and familiar as the gangster, Nagel. A final memorable performance comes from Sheppard Strudwick (Beyond a Reasonable Double, Chicago Deadline), who is fittingly smarmy as Bea’s older beau who would rather have money than love.
This was Ophüls final American film, though he went on to create European classics like Earrings of Madame de…, La Ronde, and Lola Montès. Though none of these later masterpieces are noir-influenced, they continue Ophüls theme of complex romances and women in trouble. Visually, the Reckless moment is memorable for its noir-styled cinematography from Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde, From Here to Eternity), who turns the suburbs into a place of menace and the idyllic beachside town into a realm of paranoia and imprisoning shadows. An interesting post-war European examination of the confines of American domestic life, the film proves that not even the suburbs are safe and they only provide a veneer of comfort that can be penetrated at any time.
The Reckless Moment is available on a barebones DVD, though hopefully it will make it to Blu-ray soon after Caught, which debuts this summer. This incredibly subtle film comes highly recommended and deserves multiple viewings, particularly for fans of Bennett, Mason, and Ophüls.