The Reckless Moment stars Joan Bennett as a lonely heroine whose suburban American dream curdles into a nightmare.
ne of the most famous shots in Max Ophüls' career is from the ballroom scene in The Earrings of Madame de… (1951), where our heroine, the wealthy and unserious Louise (Danielle Darrieux) dances with an Italian count (Vittorio De Sica). The camera glides along with them as they waltz under glittering chandeliers, through velvet curtains and glades of palm trees, and across vast oil paintings. The camera’s focus never errs from their faces while they gracefully fall in love.
The virtuosity of these long, nimble takes made Ophüls a kind of filmmaker's filmmaker, deeply influential but not a household name. Although I'm incredibly partial to films featuring women falling apart in beautiful settings, I had trouble getting into Ophüls' work, believing that his composed mise-en-scene and camerawork were too removed to capture the unraveling of his heroines—undone, as they usually were, by love.
There are no such showy shots in Ophüls' 1949 film noir, The Reckless Moment, made during his brief tenure in Hollywood and set on Balboa Island, an upper-middle-class community outside Los Angeles. We first see our heroine Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) at the wheel of her car, sporting dark glasses and a dark expression as she passes over a bridge. A boy fishing out of a little motorboat below calls out: "Mother. mother, where are you going?" These first few moments signal a remarkable economy of storytelling: behold a regular woman, flung into a mystery.
After making two films in Hollywood—the fairytale film noir, Caught (1949), and the romance, Letters from an Unknown Woman (1948)—Ophüls had developed a reputation for finishing projects on time and within budget. He took advantage of this goodwill to make a compelling feature out of yet another page-to-screen adaptation. If he worked fast and efficiently, the studio wouldn’t have reason to muck up his process. He intended to take the family melodrama presented to him and turn it into a critique of the suburban American dream.
Inspired by noir’s realism, particularly films like Naked City (1948) and Brief Encounter (1945), Ophüls scaled back the glitz for his portrait of a suburban, middle aged woman in trouble. (However, he still insisted in using dolly and crane shots, a frustration to the crew who had to lay down tracks on uneven terrains of sand and rock.) Lucia travels to Los Angeles to persuade the sleazy boyfriend, Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), of her teenage daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) to end his affair, as she fears that Bea will be lured into an unsavory lifestyle.
She comes home from this meeting with an armful of paper-wrapped parcels. She marches them across the open garage door where her son repairs an old car, through the kitchen where her father-in-law complains that he can't hear the results of a horse race on the radio, up the stairs past Sybil, the housemaid, who calls out to him over the noise of a vacuum, "You never win anyhow," finally into her bedroom where she confronts her daughter. Ophüls’ camera once followed women through palaces and ballrooms, but here it tracks Lucia through the claustrophobic warmth and familiarity of the middle-class home.
Her interference has done nothing but embolden the lovers and Bea sneaks out that night to meet Darby in the family's boat house. Within seconds, they begin to fight, and eventually Darby is struck by a flashlight; the next morning, Lucia finds his body, impaled by a fall on an anchor. Based on a 1947 short story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding published in Ladies Home Journal, The Reckless Moment's plot has the same DNA as episodes of Dateline or contemporary true crime podcasts: stories that speak to the paranoid fantasies of middle-class women where danger and corruption can creep into even the most normal, cheerful homes.
The pragmatic Lucia sets to work disposing of the body. The long sequence where she drags him onto the motorboat and dumps him in a swamp is stripped of Ophüls' typical romantic approach and played without music or ornament. All we see are the bleak mudflats of Newport Bay, the morning haze, and a woman in cat eye glasses and a winter coat.
Soon, an Irish man named Donnelly (James Mason) appears in her living room with a stack of incriminating love letters. He accompanies Lucia into town so she can scrounge up $5,000 to silence him. But when they perform a kind of pantomime of her day (running errands, chatting with neighbors), they grow closer. As she struggles to keep her world from falling apart, she loses track of its meaning. She mentions that she can't go to the bank (it would be too suspicious to take the car to Los Angeles again) and that she can't get away on her own. "Quite a prisoner aren't you?" Donnelly asks.
There's a moment near the end of the film, after the plot has sent Lucia into an even murkier moral conundrum, when the two meet in a crowded train station. Outside of her orderly surroundings, in a chaotic and noisy public place, the loss of her certitude becomes impossible to bear for them both. She's faint, so he orders her a coffee. By the time her world has been put back together, through sacrifices on both parts, that world seems so deficient. Ophüls himself may have related to the upheaval and disillusionment in Lucia's life. In his book on Jewish émigré directors and film noir, Vincent Brook recounts an anecdote that upon Ophüls' return to Germany after years in exile, a young boy shouted to him in his car, "Much Happiness in your homeland." Ophüls responded by bowing his head to cry. Donnelly also left his home along with a mother he kept disappointing. He tells Lucia that Bea is lucky to have a mother like her. "Everyone has a mother like me, you probably had one too,” she replies. But even mothers like her can't always keep their children from slipping into a bad life.
After seeing the film for the first time in theaters, a friend and TV writer wondered if the film had been remade. While another adaptation of the story came out in 2001 under the name The Deep End, maybe she had designs on adapting it into a series. I thought glumly of The Reckless Moment as a six-part miniseries—with a bottle episode devoted to Donnelly's childhood in Ireland, and maybe a scene where Lucia and he act on their attraction—and wondered why someone would extend the 82-minute film when they can watch it for free on YouTube. As the production and distribution of new films seems increasingly precarious, hopefully viewers will turn to a vast catalog of masterpieces like this. The Reckless Moment itself makes a claim for looking closer at something we might otherwise overlook. While Ophüls might be celebrated for his sensitivity towards the inner worlds of elegant women, he's at his most gutting here: a regular housewife and a rudderless crook, two overlooked figures that reveal the currents of disappointment, desire, and sacrifice that bind us all together.
The Reckless Moment is available to watch for free on YouTube.
Gabrielle Marceau is a writer, critic, and editor of the film and pop culture journal In the Mood Magazine.