Sunday, January 12, 2014


Columbia Pictures, 81m 59s

The sleaziness of urban noir characters and situations creeps into suburban upper middle-class America in THE RECKLESS MOMENT, an extremely competent if flawed noir melodrama that aired on Turner Classic Movies recently.

Joan Bennett shines a light on James Mason in this publicity photo.

The film is set in and around the beach community of Balboa in southern California, where location footage was captured. Lucia Harper (the great Joan Bennett, SCARLET STREET, 1945) travels to LA to confront Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick, CHICAGO DEADLINE, 1949), a greasy middle-aged man who has been seeing Lucia's impetuous 17-year-old daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks, POSSESSED, 1947). After Darby admits he could be persuaded to forget about Bea for the right price, Lucia returns home to let her daughter know how little the teen means to Darby. Understandably concerned, Bea meets clandestinely in the boathouse with Darby, who certifies the story while trying to explain his situation. In a (reckless) moment of anger, Bea clocks Darby with a flashlight. The blow causes him to lose balance and awkwardly fall to his death, which gruesomely involves an anchor.

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) must do some quick thinking in THE RECKLESS MOMENT

After Lucia discovers the lifeless body of Darby, in Mildred Pierce-like devotion to her daughter, she sticks her own neck out—in broad daylight—and dumps Darby elsewhere. Predictably, the corpse is discovered, and troubles surface rapidly for Lucia, who unwittingly assumes Darby's debt. Blackmailing Irishman Martin Donnelly (James Mason, LOLITA, 1962) appears and eloquently requests the hefty sum of $5,000 for the return of incriminating letters penned by Bea to Darby. Donnelly suggests Lucia pays up rather than face his not-so-nice associate Nagel (Roy Roberts, HE WALKED BY NIGHT, 1948).

The complications that arise for Lucia are blamed on the combination of decadent urban influence and the absence of the family patriarch. It is explained Lucia's husband Tom is away on business, coordinating the design of a bridge in Berlin (an interesting location for such endeavors). Lucia notes her husband was against the idea of Bea attending art school in LA, where she would encounter the shady Darby. This same decadent locale is also where Darby became indebted to loan sharks, who swim in the same polluted sea as Darby, surrounded by struggling musicians, chronic gamblers, and fast-talking prostitutes.

The time of year is just before Christmas, when most adults are stressed-out as it is with time and money situations that seem to work against us. Early on, Lucia begins to write a letter to her husband in frustration of his absence, then thinks better of it and discards the letter-in-progress. Instead she writes a more pleasant note, and does not register any worry about their daughter's choice for a boyfriend. To see Lucia shake off her instincts to play the role of submissive housewife is an empowering moment for woman as capable leader and main problem-solver. But without her husband able to assist in her time of need, Lucia is able to come up with only a fraction of the money demanded of her. In a particularly dispiriting sequence, she learns she will be unable to get a loan without her husband's signature. "There's nothing wrong that Tom's coming home won't cure," assures Lucia, confirming the necessity of Tom's return as head of household.

My favorite of all actresses that frequented the noir landscape, Bennett delivers an outstanding performance as the bespectacled, chain-smoking woman in peril. Unfortunately the romantic angle does not quite click. Donnelly's attraction to Lucia manifests itself too suddenly to be convincing, especially in light of the narrative's homoerotic subtext. "You have your family, I have my Nagel," reveals Donnelly. Tellingly, Donnelly goes after his “partner” only after Nagel has expressed disappointment that Donnelly has "gone soft."

An adaptation of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's "The Blank Wall," published in LADIES HOME JOURNAL STORY, THE RECKLESS MOMENT is photographed skillfully by Burnett Guffey, who also handled the cinematography for some of the greatest film noirs, such as IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), THE SNIPER (1952), and NIGHTFALL (1957). Director Max Ophüls (credited here as Max Opuls) also helmed the noir film CAUGHT, released the same year, again featuring Mason. THE RECKLESS MOMENT would be the final American effort from Ophüls before his return to Europe, where he created his most revered works (LOLA MONTÈS, 1955, THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE..., 1953, LA RONDE, 1950). THE RECKLESS MOMENT was remade as THE DEEP END (2001) starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic.

Though currently unavailable on domestic home video in the US, THE RECKLESS MOMENT can be acquired as an all-region DVD import, or have your DVR ready the next time it plays on TCM.