Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Reckless Moment (1949)

The Reckless Moment (1949) ****
Directed by: Max Ophüls.
Written by: Henry Garson & Robert Soderberg & Mel Dinelli & Robert E. Kent based on the story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.
Starring: James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), Geraldine Brooks (Bea Harper), Henry O'Neill (Tom Harper), Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby), David Bair (David Harper), Roy Roberts (Nagel), Frances E. Williams (Sybil).

Max Ophuls only lived to be 54, but he left behind some great films. He had a turbulent career, starting in his native Germany in the early 1930s, but when the Nazis came to power Ophuls, who was Jewish, fled and worked in France until it fell to the Nazis as well. He came to America, but couldn’t find work for a number of years – finally getting to direct a handful of films, before going back to France and making inarguably four of his most well known films – La Ronde, Le Plasir, The Earring of Madame De and Lola Montes – in the early 1950s. Of his Hollywood career, Letter from a Unknown Woman (1948) is his most highly regarded – but I have to admit I found that film, although visually extraordinary, to be rather dull. I have no such qualms about The Reckless Moment however – which combines noir elements with Ophuls’ typical brand of melodrama and feminism. This is a truly great film.

The film opens with regular suburban housewife Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) driving to Los Angeles to confront the much older man, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick) who has been dating her teenage daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). The meeting doesn’t go quite as Lucia had hoped – Darby is obviously a con man who says he will only leave Bea alone if Lucia gives him money. When Lucia goes home and tells this to Bea, she refuses to believe her mother. That night, she sneaks out to the boathouse to meet Darby who has driven down to see her. The two argue, and Bea hits Darby over the head and flees. The next morning she tells her mother what happened, leaving out the violence, and Lucia is relieved – that is until she heads out to the beach and discovers Darby’s body. When he fell, he landed on an anchor and died. Acting quickly, Lucia drags the body to their small boat, and takes it out and drops it in the water. It will later be discovered, and the police start asking questions. They don’t know that Darby was involved with Bea, so they aren’t too suspicious – but someone else knows. That is when Martin Donnelly (James Mason), acting on behalf of a mysterious man named Nagel, shows up and demands $5,000 or else he’ll give love letters Bea wrote Darby to the police, which would raise bad questions. With her husband out of town on an extended business trip, Lucia has to try and figure out what to do – she doesn’t have the money, but she doesn’t want the police to find out about Bea and Darby. And then a strange thing happens – Donnelly turns out not to be all that bad after all.

On one level, The Reckless Moment feels like a noir film, not unlike Michael Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce (1945) which was also about a woman (Joan Crawford) trying to protect her teenage daughter after an unexpected death. But Gerlardine Brooks in this film is nothing like Ann Blyth in that one – Blyth was a master manipulator, and despite her young age, the femme fatale of that movie. Brooks is more of a lovesick teenager – completely oblivious to what she has done, and what it does to those around her, so she can continue to live in her little bubble – where her teenage love problems are the most important thing in the world. It is Bennett who is truly the center of this film – trying so hard to protect her child, despite what she has done (it is clear it was an accident anyway), and even as things start to spiral out of control, she tries hard to hold it together. The fact that her husband is away, means she has to take on the role that we would normally associate with him – the problem solver. The mother protecting her child from a murder they committed has become somewhat of a staple in the movie – films like The Deep End (2001) with Tilda Swinton’s remarkable performance (which is actually based on the same story as this film) and Mother (2010) from Korea have had similar plots. In that regard, The Reckless Moment actually seems surprisingly modern – it hasn’t really aged in the 62 years since it was made.

But this story adds another level as well. Yes, it is a noir story, but it is also a story of suburban, and dysfunction in the nuclear family. There is quite a bit of dysfunction on display in this little family – with its absent father for starters – and like many filmmakers, Ophuls pokes holes in the notion that suburbia is boring and safe. But the James Mason character adds another level as well – he has lived his life as a criminal, with no real family connection to speak of (what little he mentions about his family is not positive) – he falls in love, not so much with Bennett, but with her comfortable middle class existence that he has never known. It would be going too far to suggest that Mason is a “hero” in this movie, but his actions at the end of the film do allow everything to go back to the status quo. While Bennett has the lead role here – practically at the center of every scene – and she is great in it, it is Mason who delivers the best performance as a man who is being torn apart by his desires.

Is the ending of The Reckless Moment happy or sad? It is truly that it seems to be a happy ending, and gives the impression that everything is going to fine. Yet that happiness is built on lies – which is the final thing we see Bennett doing in the movie. That doesn’t mention what Bea is going to have to live with – that is if she can pull herself out of her lovesick depression and realizes it. While everyone seems happy at the end, it is a false happiness.

I’m not quite sure how to fit The Reckless Moment in among the work of Ophuls. It is true that the film contains a number of his signature tracking shots – shots that would make him a major influence on many directors who came later. The film is visually stunning, shot in gorgeous black and white. And to a certain extent, the film is another of Ophuls work about strong female protagonists – women who take on roles traditional male roles in society, and often pay the price for it. But something about it feels different from Ophuls later work. I don’t mean that as an insult, but more of an observation. For me The Reckless Moment is one of his best films – a strange little film that I cannot get out of my head.

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