Director: Max Ophuls
Cast: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks, Roy Roberts, Shepperd Strudwick
This gem is a foray into film noir for the great director Max Ophuls. The Reckless Moment presents a 39-year-old Joan Bennett in a matronly role we’re not used to seeing from the wonderful actress. She played memorable femme fatales in films like Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. But in this movie, Bennett really expands as a performer. Lucia Harper is an anal, fidgety, bourgeois haus frau raising a family in the bland suburbs of Balboa, California.
The film begins in voice over as Mrs. Harper explains why she had to drive 50 miles to Los Angeles. It seems her underage daughter is romantically linked to a slimy art dealer named Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). She finds him at his business and admonishes the man to cease and desist where her daughter is concerned. Darby counters that he will only stop seeing Bea — played by Geraldine Brooks — if her mother is willing to buy him off. Offended by the very notion, Lucia refuses and leaves. Surely Bea will want no part of this lech when told about their conversation. Instead, Brooks’ teenager rips her mother for butting into her affairs and refuses to believe that Darby would make such a despicable offer. She arranges to meet her lover in the family boathouse out back later that evening.
When Bea meets the art dealer he shamelessly admits to his part in the blackmail. Furious at herself for having believed in such a foul man, Miss Harper slaps Darby and then hits him over the head with a flashlight. She stomps out of the boathouse leaving a dazed and confused boyfriend. As Strudwick’s character staggers after the girl, he accidentally kills himself by tripping on the dock and falling on an exposed anchor. Hurt and ashamed, Bea tells her mom everything but she is not aware that Darby is dead. When Mrs. Harper discovers the body early next morning, all she can do is think how this death would impact the family name and their standing in the community. Not to mention the fate of her daughter. She uses a motorboat to dump the corpse in the middle of the lake.
Murder doesn’t happen in a burg like Balboa. The newspapers are all over the scandalous mystery of this dead outsider who has washed ashore. Amid the stress of murder, cleaning it up, and not reporting the incident Lucia is presented with yet another obstacle: Martin Donnelly (James Mason). The Irish emigre works for a ruthless loan shark named Nagle (Roy Roberts). He has in his possession several incriminating love letters Bea wrote to Darby. Unless she comes up with $5,000, Donnelly is prepared to release them to the media. The Donnellys don’t keep that kind of money on hand, especially with her husband in Europe on business. She awkwardly tries to stall Mason’s character but he cautions that his employer is impatient and will stop at nothing to collect.
What follows as Mason and Bennett meet clandestinely several times comes from out of left field. Seeing the lengths this woman will go to protect her family members — Lucia hocks all her jewelry out of desperation — has an impact on Donnelly. He was raised by a terrible woman in Ireland and if he would have had a mother like this one, might his life have turned out differently? Mrs. Harper is surprised then when her blackmailer claims she doesn’t have to pay Nagle because he’ll take care of it. He reports that the police have already arrested one of Darby’s associates so Bea is in the clear. Lucia protests that she doesn’t want to see an innocent man take the rap but Mason’s henchman assures her if he was in the art dealer’s circle of acquaintances, then he was guilty of some other crime. Upon hearing there won’t be any payday, Nagle erupts and has a confrontation with Donnelly.
That evening, the loan shark pays his own visit to the Harper household. The suspicious housekeeper tells Nagle to wait in the boathouse for Lucia. When told she can’t pay, Nagle pulls a knife. The climax of this picture you can see coming but the cynical statement of Ophul’s last shot is a less than flattering comment on bourgeois values. There’s alway a ton of smoking in films noir but other than Jean-Paul Belmondo, I’ve never seen a performer smoke as much on screen as Bennett does in The Reckless Moment. I understand an actor’s desire to establish the mental/physical state of their character but man. While riding in the car with Donnelly, Lucia lights one cigarette with the butt of another. Even the Irishmen points it out as he warns how bad it is for her health.
Ophuls brings his circular camera technique in tow and he illicits compelling performances from our two leads. The Earrings of Madame de… is his best movie but this film noir is my second favorite from his fantastic body of work.
By James White