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The Reckless Moment (1949) dir: Max Ophüls Blu Ray (Indicator)

A mother becomes a victim of blackmail

Joan Bennett plays Lucia Harper, a mother and housewife who goes to Los Angeles in order to pay a visit to a man named Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), the no-good boyfriend of her teenage daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). She tells him straight up to stop seeing her. However, he only agrees to do so if she agrees to pay him off.

Later that night, after she has arrived back at her beachside family home in Balboa, Ted sneaks into their boathouse in order to have a clandestine meeting with Bea. When the latter sneaks out to speak to him, he confesses to her about his attempt to get her mother to pay him off. Bea becomes angered by his cheap behaviour and ends up hitting him with a torch before rushing back inside.

The next morning, Lucia walks out of her front door and promptly discovers that the physical blow had a more serious side-effect: it caused him to become incapacitated and fall from their boardwalk onto an anchor, thus killing him. Out of concern for her daughter being charged with homicide, she decides to take the body out in their boat and bury it in a nearby swamp.

Soon, however, she overhears that the police have discovered Ted’s corpse and suspect that he was murdered. To make matters worse, a mysterious man named Donnelly (James Mason) turns up at her house and explains that this newly dead man owed him and his partner some money. He and his mysterious partner - who goes by the name of Nagel - are seeking to make back their loss by blackmailing her with evidence connecting her daughter with the dead man.

Watch a video:

Ophüls in Hollywood

After fleeing the Nazis during 1933, German-born Jewish director Max Ophüls worked mainly in France for the duration of his career. However, he had a brief period working in Hollywood during the mid-to-late 1940s, where he made four films under the slightly tweaked name of “Max Opuls”, of which The Reckless Moment was the last. As with his other American works, it flopped at the box office - a contributing factor, no doubt, in his decision to return to France for his last few films.

The film’s lack of contemporary success is a shame since it’s clear from watching it that it’s an outstandingly crafted film noir suspense-thriller. The lengthy, dolly-heavy camera takes and elaborate chiaroscuro lighting are clearly on a level of cinematic artistry significantly above most Hollywood movies of this period. This shows through most impressively in scenes following various characters through the pivotal beachside home setting, and in the climactic fistfight where a feeling of brutal violence is effectively invoked via the flickers of various light sources. Needless to say, since this was made during the Hollywood Hays Code days, Ophüls didn’t have much leeway for depicting the proceedings in a more graphic manner. Nonetheless, he did manage to sneak in shot or two into the film featuring some black-and-white blood.

The Reckless Moment (1949)

However, it’s more than just stylish visuals and individual setpieces that make The Reckless Moment so effective. With a runtime of just 82 minutes, it’s a breathlessly tight and concise experience, shifting fluidly and spontaneously from one tense situation to another. Once again, this is evinced particularly well in the smart use of the central beach house set. It is portrayed as a family home that is, at once, suffocatingly claustrophobic - Lucia’s father Tom (played by Henry O’Neill) sleeps in the same room as her son David (David Bair) and complains that the latter smells too much like the garage where he works all day - yet partitioned off in a manner that allows the various members to go sneak about on their deceptive businesses.

Joan Bennett turns in an exceptional central performance as a trooper of a mother who will stop at nothing to put things to rights for her family - even if it involves carrying out actions which are, legally-speaking, somewhat dubious. While James Mason’s accent amusingly wavers between Irish brogue and his usual plummy tones, he still makes for a classically ambiguous antagonist. He is subtly sinister at the outset but becomes more rounded and sympathetic as the film goes on. The dynamic that flourishes between the two characters is human and complex - a tale of a potentially redemptive relationship which, in true film noir fashion (think Fritz Lang’s later The Big Heat but with the gender roles reversed), is doomed instead to an inevitable sad end.

The end result is one of the most gripping and memorable films of the era. A must-see.

Runtime: 82 mins

Dir: Max Ophüls

Script: Henry Garson, Robert Soderberg, Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent, based on a short story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Starring: James Mason, Joan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks, Henry O’Neill, Shepperd Strudwick, David Bair, Roy Roberts

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The images suffer from a few white specks and infrequent softness but otherwise, things are pretty good, with strong contrast and detail. The soundtrack suffers slightly from distortion at times but nothing too bad overall.

Extras

Making an American Movie

Lutz Bacher takes a look at director Max Ophüls and his work on The Reckless Moment in this worthy but somewhat dry 44-minute documentary. He reveals that the film was a quick, cheap 29-day shoot with a budget of just under $1 million - a large percentage of which was spent on James Mason and Joan Bennett who were then major stars. The production was so tight, in fact, that when shooting wrapped on the final night the cast and crew were bussed back to Hollywood in order to save on putting them up for an additional day in a hotel.

Nonetheless, Ophüls still took time to craft a number of elaborate long takes. This took some wrangling with Columbia Pictures; one lengthy dolly shot in a bus station was reduced from a three-day schedule to two in exchange for him being able to hire more background extras in order to make the scene more convincing. Nonetheless, another of his proposed ideas - a shot following James Mason between two adjacent stages at Columbia’s studios - was refused outright because it would have been prohibitively costly.

The film was based on a short story called The Blank Wall written by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. During the shoot, it retained this name and, when filming wrapped, Ophüls generously presented all of the cast and crew with made-to-order momentoes in the form of autographed clay blank walls (one of which Bacher shows us). However, it ultimately got released as The Reckless Moment.

Maternal Overdrive

Director Todd Haynes dissects The Reckless Moment thematically and stylistically. His discussion on the battles which took place between Ophüls and the studio with regards to the relationship between the respectably married Lucia (Joan Bennett) and the criminal Donnelly) are particularly interesting. Haynes ends by admitting that he dropped a few references from the film into his own Far From Heaven.

James Mason as Homme Fatal

This is a video recording of the first part of the Focus on James Mason event presented by Adrian Garvey which was held at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, University of London in 2018. It also includes a few clips from Mason’s films which provide examples of his contribution to the so-called “Homme Fatal” persona within the film noir genre.

Focus on James Mason: Audience Discussion

This is a recording of the second part of the Focus on James Mason event hosted by Adrian Garvey and Sarah Thomas at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It features an audience discussion/Q&A following a screening of The Reckless Moment.

James Mason: Watching the Violence Unfold

Once more, this is a recording of part of the Focus on James Mason event at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, this time presented by Sarah Thomas. She takes a look at Mason’s so-called “Homme Fatal” persona in two of his later films: The Deadly Affair (1966) and The Flower in His Mouth (1975). Some clips from the films are included here.

The extras here are rounded out by an isolated music & effects track, an image gallery and a collector’s booklet.

Overall:

The Reckless Moment is an unsung classic amongst the film noir cycle and well worthy of this Indicator release. The Todd Haynes interview is an essential accompaniment and the three recordings from the Focus on James Mason event are well worth a watch for fans of the actor.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆1/2

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