The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent, Henry Garson & Robert Soderberg
Based on “The Blank Wall” by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Director: Max Ophuls
Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey
Music: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks
Release: December 29, 1949
Percent Noir: 80%
“The Reckless Moment” was dumped right after Christmas in 1949 by Columbia with no fanfare. The reviews ranged from indifferent to scathing – with professional asshole Vincent Canby from The New York Times gleefully revealing the finale in his panning of the film. Even James Mason, who was good friends with the director Max Ophuls, said the movie was bad. And as for Ophuls, the film was the last straw that sent him back to France, where he would subsequently make several masterpieces, including “The Earrings of Madame de…,” which is often considered one of the best films of all time.
The movie languished, even after film critics reassessed it after realizing that Ophuls was a genius. Columbia chose not to release it on any of the Film Noir box sets, nor as mainstream physical release. I’m a huge fan of Ophuls, and I could only find it by buying a $40 DVD from Korea. So was it worth it?
Yes. Yes, it was.
“The Reckless Moment” is, in many ways, unlike any other film noir I have ever seen. Ophuls takes chances with his visuals and soundtrack which are completely unexpected. The storyline isn’t the norm for noir… and yet the film still retains that specific mood one desires from this genre.
The great Joan Bennett stars here as Lucia, matriarch of the Harper family who is trying to keep it together while her husband is in a different country for weeks or months at a time for work. Her father-in-law (Henry O’Neill) and her son David (David Blair) are already a handful, but her big problem of late has been her daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). 17-year-old Bea is dating an older gross guy named Darby (Shepperd Shrudwick, appropriately oily), and seems determined to destroy her own life. “Mother, can’t you trust me?” Bea asks while sitting in a robe, her legs wide open. Lucia obviously saw “Mildred Pierce” and knows she’s got to cut this shit off pronto, but later that night Bea handles it herself when she gets some sense and breaks it off with Darby.
End of movie? Nope. The next morning Lucia discovers Darby’s body impaled on an anchor on the beach (he fell on it), assumes her daughter did it and goes into full-on beast mode, disposing of the body like a boss. But then a man named Martin (James Mason) shows up with Bea’s love letters to Darby… wouldn’t it be awful if the police got these? Martin insists on $5000, which is way too much for Lucia even if she has a maid, several cars and a boat. But then an odd thing happens – Martin almost immediately falls head over heels for Lucia. He wants to call the whole thing off, but his blackmailing partner Nagel (Roy Roberts) isn’t going to give in… no matter what it takes.
Bennett was beloved by foreign directors who came to America, working with Ophuls, Jean Renoir and multiple times with Fritz Lang. They understood the balance between her hardness and softness much better than any of her American directors, who often reduced her either to the “bitch” role or made her lean too hard on her softness, forgetting what makes her interesting as a performer. This is the best performance from her I’ve seen – watching as she bravely attempts to keep her shit together in front of her family as her entire life implodes around her is watching a master in full control of her craft. I doubt many other actresses could pull off the long, dialogue-free sequence where Lucia discovers the body and, without missing a beat, begins to plot how to dispose it and save her family, but Bennett excels here.
And about that sequence – Ophuls makes the brilliant decision here to drop all the music, leaving the film silent except for sound effects. With no guiding notes telling us how to react to the situation, the results are excruciatingly suspenseful to watch… the maestro is telling us that anything could happen at any moment by refusing us a fundamental building block of filmmaking that usually guides our feelings.
And that’s just one of his many genius touches here. Anyone who has heard of him knows that Ophuls keeps the camera in motion constantly, and this film is no exception. Here the movement is purposeful, keeping in step with Lucia as it follows her through her day, watching her react first to normal problems and later with extraordinary ones. His collaboration with cinematographer Burnett Guffey (“My Name is Julia Ross,” “Scandal Sheet”) also deserves mention. There is an amazing single-take shot that follows Lucia from the kitchen/dining room area of her home, which is warm with bright lights and the love of her family, into the sudden shadows of the dark living room where Martin waits to explode her life that is simply astonishing. It’s one of my favorite shots in all noir, creating the perfect metaphor for her frame of mind.
“The Reckless Moment” is also interesting in how forthright it is about its characters’ feelings. One of the hallmarks of noir is the grey area that holds most of its characters’ motivations. Does she really love him? Is he plotting to kill him? How much can we trust her? But here, everyone just spells out everything. Bea doesn’t hide her love of the asshole. Lucia is honest about not being able to get the money. Martin bluntly states early and often that he has fallen for Lucia. This miraculously works in the story’s favor because it often causes more complications for our hero.
Mason has a difficult needle to thread in his performance… appearing at first menacing and villainous to us before turning on a dime and becoming a tragic romantic hero. Thank God Mason is Mason, because I don’t think any other actor except possibly Ray Milland could have pulled this off. But Mason made a career of these inherently flawed, good at heart men. He’s not quite as good here as he is in “A Star is Born,” but he comes close.
The film isn’t perfect… it feels much longer than its 80 minute running time, thanks primarily to a section in the middle where Lucia attempts to raise the $5000 herself. While wearing a mink coat (because of course), Lucia wanders from bank to loan company to pawnbroker. The scenes are all quiet, devoid of tension and these visits would have been much better suited as a montage.
Regardless, this is essential noir. Ophuls brings a bunch of new toys to the game and goes out of his way to reframe and create new permeations of the crime genre in every scene. He was perfectly matched with Bennett and Mason, and I only wish he had more films noir once he returned to France.