The Reckless Moment (1949)
User ReviewsReview this title
Ophuls direction is superb, with the suspense mounting in every scene as housewife Bennett, mistakenly believing her daughter has killed a man, disposes the body and tries desperately to hide the girl's involvement from the police and her family. Then Mason appears, demanding money for incriminating love letters he has which the daughter had written to the dead man. The plot thickens from there, with Bennett trying to shield her family from scandal as the blackmailer begins to admire and then love the devoted housewife and mother.
James Mason is always excellent in sinister roles, and his performance here is one of his best, though his character's motivation isn't quite clear. By his own admission, he's a loser who's never done a decent thing in his life, so why he suddenly develops a conscience is never fully explained.
But who wouldn't fall in love with beautiful Joan Bennett, giving the performance of her career as the desperate mother who's commonplace life is suddenly turned upside down by crime and blackmail. Ophuls, who the year before had guided Joan Fontaine through one of her greatest performances in 'Letter From an Unknown Woman,' drew from Bennett her most natural, believable performance. She's never been better.
Highly recommended for the outstanding direction and two great stars in peak form.
From the start, where we see the 'murder' and find out what really happened, to the startling ending, this film, directed by Max Ophüls, grips. Aside from the two leads, Geraldine Brooks is good as the teenage daughter struggling with a lost love affair and the hormonal rage of puberty; and Kathryn Card is suitably condescending as she refuses to loan money to the increasingly desperate Bennett.
'The Reckless Moment' has a frisson of noir, and a strong script. It is a minor film, certainly, but a rewarding one.
Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), a middle class housewife whose husband is away on business, could not have imagined the events that would follow when she decided to confront her daughter's boyfriend about their relationship.
Ted Darby (Sheppard Strudwick) is a man of dubious character who is significantly older than Lucia's daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) and he soon makes it clear that he'd be perfectly willing to stop seeing Bea for an agreed sum of money. Lucia doesn't pay up because she's confident that Bea wouldn't want to continue seeing a man whose feelings for her are so shallow. Lucia's judgement turns out to be wrong as Bea makes it clear that she doesn't believe what her mother says about Ted and also has no intension of ending their relationship.
When Ted and Bea meet next in the Harpers' boathouse, their discussion of what transpired in Ted's meeting with Lucia triggers an argument which culminates in Bea striking him with a torch and him accidentally falling to his death. When Lucia discovers what's happened, she disposes of his body in the nearby harbour and returns to her normal domestic routine.
Unexpectedly, after Ted's body is found the police don't establish any connection between him and Bea but a threat to the tranquillity of the family's life comes from a blackmailer called Martin Donnelly (James Mason) who surprisingly turns out to be a charming, generous and completely unthreatening person who gradually falls in love with Lucia.
Lucia finds it impossible to raise the full amount of money that she needs to pay the ransom without the signature of her husband and this leads to the intervention of Martin's violent partner called Nagel (Roy Roberts) and an unpredictable series of incidents follow which gradually lead to a resolution of Lucia's problems.
Events show Lucia to be someone who had a fierce compulsion to protect the social standing, lifestyle and perceived respectability of her family at all costs and this made her prepared, without hesitation, to dispense with all moral or legal concerns about what she needed to do to achieve her aim. When it also becomes apparent that she suffers from feelings of being suffocated by the demands and constraints of her family life, the presence of this ambivalence serves to illustrate just how strong her protective instincts really are.
Joan Bennett and James Mason's excellent performances, the elegant and effective direction by Max Ophuls and some wonderfully stylized photography by Burnett Guffey all contribute strongly to the success of this subtle and intriguing movie.
The film's masterstroke is in placing its generic hallmarks the sleazy, manipulative older man duping an innocent, the brooding blackmailer and the merciless hand of fate within (and against) such a well-realised familial set-up, in such a comfortable, ordinary, well-lit community. The bright house, like something from a TV soap, is contrasted superbly with the other-worldly eerieness of the boat house at night. A similar juxtaposition: a nightmare fast unravelling within an ideal, was used in Nicholas Ray's terrific 'Bigger Than Life'. Here, Ophüls also uses visual tricks to telegraph danger and impending catastrophe, as in the lights-on/lights-off sequence that commences the film's first night. The director's trademark tracking shots are also much in evidence: there's a tremendous one to set the scene as Bennett returns from Los Angeles some five minutes in.
The film is powered by Bennett's edgy, protective central performance. She's a nervous tic in human form as her character juggles traditional responsibilities with new ones, like trying to raise £10,000 in two days. The scenes in which she is gradually, casually degraded by uncaring loan companies and pawnbrokers are masterfully done. What other film would bother to show that? Her scene with Mason in a car crossing a lake, is similarly potent: eloquent dialogue forcefully delivered. At times betraying the B-movie woodenness that ultimately prevented Bennett ever being a top drawer star, her housewife nevertheless has a certain something more real, more compelling, more caring, more obsessively, believably maternal than almost any other on-screen parent of the period. Mason gives one of his best performances too, and his final confrontation with Bennett is an absolute gem. There's also fine work by David Bair and Geraldine Brooks, as our would-be murderer.
'The Reckless Moment' is fast-moving, persuasive entertainment, written and shot with an eye for the unusual. There's also a curious (albeit fatalistic) happy-ish ending. Its themes are as enduring as its poetic imagery, Bennett's emotional and sexual repression (neither relieved by any outlet), the mundane practicalities of domestic '40s life and the soon-to-be-familiar 'generation gap' conflicts within the family unit giving this home front Noir a feel that's all its own.
(3.5 out of 4)
*The original story was set in WWII, hence the absence of the husband. Bennett's scenes on the telephone with her husband (and her conversation about him with his father) bear some resemblance to those in a great American home front picture released five years before: 'Since You Went Away'. Claudette Colbert's surprising tour-de-force at the heart of that film is one of the few screen mothers superior to Bennett's. 'The Reckless Moment' also recalls a 1948 Noir in which a happy post-war bubble is cruelly punctured that time by Robert Ryan the twisty-turny 'Act of Violence'.
"The Reckless Moment" is a suspenseful melodrama of Max Ophüls. The despair of Lucia is impressive trying to protect her family and specially her teenage daughter from the scandal. The plot point is when the criminal falls in love with her and as he says, he had never done a decent deed in his life but he decides to help his beloved victim. Joan Bennett is fantastic in the role of Lucia and James Mason is a nice villain in the end. David Bair plays the annoying son of Lucia that is irritating. In 2001, Tilda Swinton played the lead role in "The Deep End", a good remake of "The Reckless Moment". My vote is seven.
Title (Brazil): "Na Teia do Destino" ("In the Web of the Destiny")
Wonderfully directed by Ophuls and atmospherically shot this was updated as The Deep End with Tilda Swinton also a fine film but this has a distinct allure of its own.
Most of the supporting cast isn't given much to do which helps focus the film but an interesting character is the faithful maid Sybil played well by Frances Williams. Always in the background but seemingly all seeing she emerges with a nice showing of grit and understanding at a climatic moment.
For fans of noir and melodrama this is a pleasure from start to finish.
The Reckless Moment is directed by Max Ophüls, it's adapted from a shorty story titled "The Blank Wall" and cinematography comes from Burnett Guffey. A tight enough picture technically, it is however something of let down considering the plot involves blackmail, murder, deception and sacrifice. Highly regarded by some notable critics, the film's strength, outside of the two excellent lead performances, comes by way of its flip-flop of the sexes plot. Reversing the roles of an innocent involved with a shady good for nothing gives the film a unique feel, but it also makes the film play as a melodrama as opposed to being a darkly noirish potboiler. Add in to the mix that Ophüls is content to go for emotion over criminal drama and it's an uneasy sit all told.
Where Ophüls does very well is with the distinction between Lucia's two differing worlds. She's from comfortable suburbia in Balboa, the epitome of contented respectability. But as she arrives in L.A. and does her "reckless moment," the landscape and tone changes. She herself significantly wears sunglasses at key moments and Messrs Ophüls & Guffey bring on the shadows and swirling cameras to portray the feeling of entrapment for our protagonists as they get deeper into it. The key scenes revolve around the Harper boathouse and the guys get maximum impact from this darkly lit venue. There's also some suggestion of manipulation that offers an intriguing train of thought, while the final shot begs to be given far more dissection than just seen as being a standard film closer.
Visually smart and acted accordingly, but not to my mind the nerve frayer that others have painted it as. 6/10
Completing my Ophuls American trilogy, I still think that "Letter From An Unknown Woman" is his best American film, but this one is also pretty great. It's a very unusual film for it's time period, and features plenty of Ophul's trademark swooping camera movements. Joan Bennett is virtually shown always in transit, seemingly never getting a moment of rest, as the determined yet frightened mother. Mason's performance is one of his most beautifully subtle and interesting. In his long dark coat and with the Irish lilt he reminds me of his Johnny McQueen in "Odd Man Out". The final ten minutes are rather convoluted, but still gripping and quite emotional.
The story is that of an atypical film noir about a mother who's become the head of the family while the husband is away for work. The daughter is involved with a shady character and things get out of hand very quickly, and the rest follows like a roller-coaster ride, which gives the story a great dynamic within relatively little real time. The contrasts between dark and light, good and evil, night and day, etc., work terrific for one thing, but at many times there is gray in between these extremes, which shows up in the characters' doubts and emotions, and the fact that these extremes are so very close to each other; evil seems to be but a drive away from sunny and carefree Balboa...
There's also a lot of dynamics in the cinematography; dark and light (of course), great tracking shots and the use of very different locations. Joan Bennett and James Mason make for a believable 'couple', but the rest of the cast certainly hold their own. One thing I have been thinking about a lot was how credible Mason's character's big change was. And even though it is utterly romantic, I don't think it is unbelievable at all...
A great film that moves fast, is over before you know it, and I personally want to see again and again. A big 9 out of 10 for now.
While it's not exactly 'Mildred Pierce' where Joan Crawford tried to shield her Ann Blyth, her daughter, this is definitely an interesting film where Geraldine Brooks, as a 17 year old daughter to Bennett, falls for an older guy and there can only be trouble down the road.
When Bennett confronts the suave Shepperd Strudwick to stop seeing his daughter, he wants money. The part was a different one for the usual calm Strudwick. Unfortunately for him, he dies off too quickly in the film for his character to really take hold.
Bennett thinks that she has resolved the accidental killing until James Mason, who is working for gangster Roy Roberts, shows up and demands blackmail from her. Here is where the movie becomes very interesting. Mason falls for Bennett, but he can't control Roberts and a series of incidents follow which shall we say may let all concerned off the hook.
Interesting film with Bennett giving a very good performance as the harried mother.
Director Ophuls' leisurely camera work tends to soothe rather than jar, resulting in a style not particularly well suited for the jagged world of classic noir. Still, it is well suited for bringing out character traits as they emerge on a specific background.
Here, a rather ordinary, if upperclass, housewife gets to show her toughness by protecting her family (while Dad's away) from the ignominy of apparent murder and blackmail. So, move over Ozzie&Harriet and Leave It to Beaver, because by implication those well-coiffed housewives of 50's sitcoms are a lot tougher than they look.
Ophuls' dollying camera effectively contrasts the seedy world of the blackmailers with mother Lucia's amiable home life. The problem is that the criminal virus has established a beachhead in her boathouse, and now she must keep it from crossing the yard and invading the family home. Ironically, in order to do that, this law-abiding woman must herself break the law (the reckless moment), resulting in a noirish downward spiral.
Halfway between the worlds of crime and respectability is reluctant blackmailer Donnelly (Mason). In a sense, Lucia meets him there, halfway, but the pull of their respective worlds is too strong to open up a third possibility. I guess my big reservation is with the highly contrived climax that wraps these things up too neatly in typical Production Code fashion. Nor, for that matter, is Donnelly's sudden life-altering devotion that plausible.
Nonetheless, it's a good atmospheric production (check out the moody use of the beach-front breeze), with a fine central performance from Bennett who refuses to go over the top. To me, however, the most unexpectedly jarring part is that very last phone scene—see if you agree.
Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) is an upper-class wife and mother with a young, teen-age son and a 17-year-old daughter. Lucia's husband is away. The family lives in a fine ocean-front home in "the lovely community of Balboa," fifty miles south of Los Angeles. Bea Harper is just old enough to get herself in trouble with men and just young enough not to want to listen to her mother. The older man she's been seeing is a sleazy, charming opportunist. When Lucia realizes what's going on, she warns the man away...and soon she finds him dead at their boat house. She thinks her daughter was responsible. With little hesitation, Lucia Harper does what she thinks she must to protect her daughter and her family. She drags the body into a small boat and dumps it on the far side of the ocean inlet. When the body is eventually discovered, murder is suspected. And then Lucia is visited by a dark Irishman, Martin Donnelly (James Mason). He has letters written by her daughter to the man, letters which could be interpreted in a compromising way if they were turned over to the police or to the press. The price for silence? Thousands of dollars which Lucia can find no way to raise. In a subtle, slow rearrangement of feelings, Donnelly, who is a disreputable man hardened to pleadings, finds himself sympathetic to Lucia's determination to protect her family. Donnelly's partner, however, is made of harder and more cynical stuff. The conclusion takes place in the darkened boathouse and then in an act of sacrifice that may have you wondering about what you would have done.
I think this is at least a semi-noir because of the desperate fix Lucia Harper finds herself in. The more she tries to protect her daughter and the more she tries to raise the money the blackmailers want, it seems the more the consequences of her actions close in around her. The flip side of that noir coin is the role and personality of Martin Donnelly. Ever so slowly we can see him drawn to Lucia Harper. But he's drawn not simply to her as a person as he is to what she represents...love and determination, a stable family, a fierceness to protect those she loves. If Lucia Harper may be doomed by circumstances she wants to control but can't, Martin Donnelly may be doomed by feelings he never expected to have and for which there can be no happy ending.
The Reckless Moment starts out as Joan Bennett's movie. In my view she remains one of the least appreciated of Hollywood actresses. She played heartless women so effectively (Scarlet Street, for instance) that her versatility was obscured. Yet she could match Myrna Loy in good-natured irony and desirability, and was equally good at portraying lovingly exasperated mothers. She was shrewd, as well, being quite willing to play mothers of grown children as she moved into early middle-age. The Reckless Moment, however, becomes a two-person movie as soon as James Mason appears at Lucia's home bearing those letters. Mason was one of the great film actors. With a face that could stay calm but imply all sorts of feelings, some unpleasant and nearly all conflicted, just below the skin, with an incomparable voice and with great acting technique, Mason could turn dross into gold. Matched with Bennett, the two of them perform a kind of dance where each needs the other to do well.
How does The Deep End compare to The Reckless Moment? I think they are both first-rate movies.
That's not to gainsay its charms, however, as this taut tale of accidental death and blackmail takes you from start to finish in the seeming blink of an eye, underplaying, thankfully, any tendency to melodrama in place of character development and pace of narrative.
Joan Bennett is very good as the protective mother hen, who'll stop at almost nothing to protect her wilful teenage daughter from a disastrous affair with a nefarious older man to the extent of covering up said daughter's accidental killing of her now-revealed blackguard of a lover. James Mason comes onto the scene as the "human" half of a blackmailing duo, intent on extorting $5000 from Bennett (her husband conveniently abroad at the time), whose outlook towards both her and himself changes as his admiration for her grows.
To be fair, I'm not sure enough time was devoted towards Mason's near-Damascene type conversion to Bennett's side, making it seem a trifle improbable and unexpected, certainly Bennett rarely has a polite word to say to him as she strives valiantly to raise the necessary funds to buy back her daughter's offending letters. No, for me the strength of the film is in the depiction of Bennett as a typical 1940's American matriarch, not too proud to take the whole problem on her shoulders, dirty her hands or even pawn her best jewellery to protect her precious family. The conclusion, involving a self-defence murder and car crash which sees Mason conveniently clear Bennett with his dying breath, does run counter to a lot of the realism that has gone before but I suppose some concessions had to be made to the audience of the day in delivering thrills and absolution for the heroine.
The best acting is unquestionably by Bennett. Mason's "Oirish" accent comes and goes a bit with the tide and he also struggles at times to convince you of the sincerity of what is, admittedly a trickily written part, but his marvellous speaking voice will convince me of most things, even as a cheap conscience-stricken blackmailer as here.
The direction by Max Opuls is crisp, occasionally making good use of exterior locations and is all about moving the story along within its brief screen-time.
In the end, the movie comes across as what it probably was, a superior B-picture, not strong enough as a main event, but one you'd enjoy on a double-feature.
I actually saw the remake of this movie, The Deep End, with Tilda Swinton and Goran Visjnic of "ER" fame. Both films are excellent, though the emphasis in each is slightly different.
Bennett plays Lucia Harper, mother of two, a teenage daughter and a younger son. Her husband works out of town currently - he appears to be an engineer - so Lucia has to hold it all together for her family, which includes her father. They have a house on the beach and lead a comfortable life, but her family needs and depends on her in every way.
Lucia doesn't like Darby,(Strudwick) the man her daughter Bea (Brooks) is seeing -- he's older than she is and seems on the sleazy side. She goes to see him in Los Angeles and asks him to stay away. Darby is happy to, for a price. When Lucia relates this to Bea, Bea doesn't believe her and that night, sneaks off to meet him in the family boathouse. When she learns that he did indeed want money, she hits him and runs away. He chases her, becomes woozy from being hit, and falls through an insecure railing to his death. I believe he impales himself on an anchor, as he did in the remake, but truthfully I couldn't see that shot clearly enough.
Lucia finds the body and, not knowing it was an accident, gets Darby into the family boat and dumps it in a lagoon; Bea doesn't know Darby is dead until the following day, when his body is found and the police and press descend. Bea becomes hysterical and Lucia has to calm her.
That should be the end of it but a man named Donnelly (James Mason) appears demanding $5000, on behalf of a man named Nagel, for letters that Bea wrote Darby. Lucia is frantic - how can she get her hands on that kind of money without raising her family's suspicion? Seeing the stress she's under and her protectiveness, Donnelly is moved by her plight.
This particular version of the story focuses on thin veneer of normalcy that Lucia operates under, and he emphasizes this by having her son ask innocuous questions constantly, her daughter's hysteria throughout the film, and all the while, her father takes to the blackmailing Donnelly and invites him for drinks and dinner. It also focuses on the veneer of the class system that was quickly fading after World War II. For Lucia, going to a bar, a pawn shop, a loan company, for her to even admit she needs money, is difficult. And ultimately she confides in her black maid and needs her help. Joan Bennett, with her educated accent and sophistication, does a marvelous job of portraying this as well as the stress of Lucia's life.
One couldn't ask for a better actor than James Mason as Donnelly. His presence, his voice, his attractiveness give him a veneer of respectability, but he's quick to point out he's not of Lucia's class. "She's lucky to have a mother like you," he tells Lucia about Bea. "Everybody has a mother like me," Lucia snaps. "You probably had one yourself." They become partners to satisfy the cruel Nagel.
Max Ophuls keeps the atmosphere dark and the suspense tight throughout the film, juxtaposing the bright home with the inquisitive, bothersome teenage boy and the relaxed father with the dark and foreboding beach front and lonely roads. Very powerful.
In the "Deep End," the story has been modernized - the son is gay, and the focus is on the character of the mother more than what she has to cope with, in my opinion -- it's a fascinating character study. And her connection to Visjnic is explored more.
I highly recommend both versions of this film, each on its own merits.
But this is not all. Interaction between the characters is extremely well done, particularly as each one has some relationship with Bennett and it is easy to believe that these would continue beyond the confines of the movie. The uncredited contribution of the family's black maid/housekeeper reflects some of the hidden agenda and the doubt and frustration that temporarily threatens the happy home. Wonderfully played by Frances Williams along with James Mason's strong, although worried character Joan Bennett's coat tails were never better supported.
The film opens with Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) driving over to the mainland from Balboa. It isn't a shopping trip - she is going to meet her daughter's lover, to persuade him to stop seeing Bea. Bea is played very intensely by Geraldine Brooks, an under appreciated actress. Bea refuses to give him up and will not believe that he was willing, for the right kind of payment. On top of this Lucia's husband, Tom, rings, to say he will not be home for Christmas. That night Bea meets Ted Darby (Sheppard Strudwick) secretly in the boathouse. They have a fight and Bea mistakenly thinks she has killed him. The next morning, while walking on the beach, Lucia finds Darby's body. In an amazing and suspenseful scene she somehow gets the body into their rowboat and leaves it on another beach.
Lucia then gets a visit from Mr. Donnelly (James Mason) - a blackmailer who is acting on behalf of Mr. Nagle, who has some indiscreet letters that Bea wrote to Darby. Donnelly is drawn into Lucia's world and is instantly attracted to her and her family (the type of life he has never known). At one point he says something like "your kids are lucky to have a mother like you" - she replies "everyone has a mother like me". She doesn't believe there is a third party - a Mr. Nagle, but there is and he is nasty.
The film follows Mrs. Harper as she desperately tries to raise the $5,000, from the bank, to a humiliating interview at a loan office and finally a pawnbrokers where she raises $800 on her jewelry. When the police arrest a man for the murder, Donnelly, who has been increasingly reluctant about taking her money - tells her she doesn't have to find the money anymore. Nagle has other plans and visits Lucia at the boat house to threaten her.
A lot more happens but the ending where Lucia, surrounded by cage-like wooden bannisters, is talking to her husband on the phone - you get the feeling that she will put all that has happened behind her and try to go on with her day to day life.
Lucia Harper is the mother in a conventional family. Her husband is the breadwinner and the protector, but he is temporarily away on business. Lucia plays the role of household organizer and nurturer. But circumstances intervene, and Lucia--in her husband's absence--is forced to play the role of protector. This is a natural role, for every mother will defend her brood against dangers. Lucia makes a momentary, risky decision in defense of her daughter.
James Mason plays Mr. Donnelly, the man who visits her household with the threat of blackmail. Lucia must protect her family at all cost and is drawn into the shady world of Mr. Donnelly and his threatening partner.
Likewise, Mr. Donnelly is drawn into the world of Lucia. Her influence changes him, sending the story down an unforeseen path.
The Reckless Moment is a simple story. Although there is no true hero, the main characters compelled my interest. And the stylish cinematography created a compressed world in which the actions and emotions of the characters fill the screen.