The Reckless Moment April 27, 2018
1 Hr., 18 Mins.
n which the born-and-bred German auteur Max Ophüls teams up with the raven-maned Joan Bennett to make a frantic, sophisticated woman-in-trouble film noir. In The Reckless Moment (1949), itself an adaptation of the 1947 novel The Blank Wall, the 39-year-old Bennett plays Lucia Harper, a mother of two with a husband away on business and a melodramatic obstacle hindering her ability to generate domestic perfection.
Her 17-year-old daughter, the wedge-haired Bea (Geraldine Brooks), has started having an affair with the unscrupulous opportunist and small-time
criminal Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), whom Bea, maybe having seen a couple too many deadly-is-the-female Bette Davis vehicles in her younger years, thinks is the man for her. He’s romantically dangerous, a wearer of tidy suits and pungent colognes that make her feel older. When around him, she’s allowed to be a quasi-gun moll — the grownup most contemptuous teenagers aspire to become.
Lucia, of course, is appalled by Darby’s exploitation of her daughter. In no way is this some May-December romance rooted in mutual fondness that will eventually render age meaningless. Darby’s too much a creep. So as the film opens, which we presume takes place a couple weeks after he and Bea started calling themselves a thing, Lucia has had it. She tracks the man down and tells him to stop seeing her daughter, a couple Benjamins offered to make the demand more digestible.
Darby agrees to her request: cash can practically make him do anything. But then Lucia’s morality gets in the way and she realizes that she’s going to have to take back her offer. So Darby tells Bea of his and her mother’s furtive meeting, and family drama commences.
Later, Darby and Bea clandestinely meet in the family boat house to discuss the state of whatever the hell they’re calling their courtship. But then an argument ensues, which becomes passionate, then physical. In a handful of moments, Darby’s in the water, his head bonked and bleeding. Then he dies, and Bea is oblivious in part due to her running away from the situation just before he fatefully lost his footing.
When Lucia happens upon the corpse the next day, she assumes Bea’s killed him. And, being the gallant mother she is, decides to take matters into her own hands and dump the body somewhere else to cover her daughter’s tracks. The plan seems foolproof. But then a silver-tongued malefactor named Martin Donnelly (James Mason), who apparently was in Darby’s circle, shows up and demands $5,000 in hush money. She has a couple days to sort it out, he says.
But, alas, The Reckless Moment is not so immune to accomodating the overwrought, in spite of how much of it is rendered with pretty admirable realism. (Just the way this family operates, and the way the Bennett character acts, is true-blue ‘40s domesticity, with a twist.) It tries spawning a love connection between Martin and Lucia; he’s a semi-baddie who actually has a heart of gold, the film argues, and Lucia, more or less abandoned by a spouse who’s never around, kinda sorta wants someone who values her. She can heal the damaged Martin; Martin, after thawing his ice cube of a heart, can provide her with the love she needs.
I never much found myself won over by this sort of development, and not just because Bennett and Mason have so little chemistry. But the feature is still resourceful and tautly made; it's a moderately artful opera that plays better than the potboiling page-turner on which it’s based. The film compellingly wonders not just how far a mother will go to protect her children, but also how far she will go to preserve an illusion of domestic utopia.
Ophüls frequently, and brilliantly, spotlights scenes in which she attempts to write letters to her husband, tossing out messages that directly tell him about her troubles and rewriting her missives in ways that obscure the hard truths. Because who hasn’t desperately assayed to mend the cracks of a delicate situation in order to indulge denial?
This is an agreeable little thriller that would ultimately be more efficiently adapted by Scott McGehee and David Siegel in 2001, who would go on to write and direct The Deep End, which expanded on The Blank Wall’s story and subversively turned the Darby/Bea relationship into a homosexual one, adding urgency to the plot. But The Reckless Moment is capably crafted and performed all the same. That Ophüls only completed four American films makes its existence all the more valuable. B