Melodrama lush and silk-wrapped in The Reckless Moment, a typically opulent film from Max Ophüls, billed almost inevitably as Max Opuls in the four films he made in the USA, of which this was the last.
He’s best known for Lola Montes and La Ronde, and for a strange fascination with female characters whose name began with the letter L (it was Léocadie, played by Simone Signoret, in La Ronde, no prizes for guessing who it was in Lola Montes). Lucia is his L of a gal in The Reckless Moment, Joan Bennett showing what an all-rounder she was in a role that’s several rungs up the social ladder and a moral universe away from the vamp characters that had made her name.
As recently as two years earlier, in The Macomber Affair, she’d been playing the femme fatale, but here she’s a very mumsy mother living in a high tone beachside community. Discovering that her 17-year-old daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) has been seeing older lothario art dealer Ted Darby (a scaly Shepperd Strudwick), Lucia takes matters into her own hands, drives into LA and orders him to back off. He suggests a payoff, the heel.
A quick bit of plotting later, and Darby is dead, having been killed accidentally by Bea, and mother steps in again, to cover up what’s happened.
Enter James Mason as Martin Donnelly, a silken-voiced Irish blackmailer who has incriminating letters Bea wrote to Darby and will hand them over to the police if Lucia doesn’t come up with $5,000. Here beginneth the lesson.
What develops is a fierce and fascinating film full of liminal characters on the verge of being something they’re not. This extends from Lucia (the staid mother and loving wife suddenly disposing of a dead body and bargaining with a blackmailer), Bea (the girl becoming a woman), her brother David (hitting puberty), her father Tom (hitting senescence), even the family’s maid, Sybil (threatening at any moment to become properly immersed in the action). But most of all blackmailer Martin, whose initially cooing demands start as a mocking parody of the way blackmailers are meant to behave but morph gradually into something else entirely.
Lucia’s husband is away on business in Berlin and, in a telling handful of symbolic exchanges – Martin chides Lucia about her smoking, carries groceries for her – their relationship becomes one that’s almost husband and wife.
In fact the only person in this film who is unequivocally what he seems to be is Nagel (Roy Roberts), Martin’s hard-as-nails boss, a cold-hearted crook through and through (Nagel is German for nail, and Ophüls was German, so the name may be no accident).
A love story then? Not quite. Nor quite a blackmail story. Nor one about an accidental death. It’s all set in the run-up to Christmas, so add it to the list of Christmas movies if you like. Put a feminist spin on it too, if you want – woman grabs agency, sorts shit out. Or an anti-feminist spin – woman’s husband goes away, everything starts falling apart, until another man, Donnelly, steps in to save the day. Choose your weapons.
Both Bennett and Mason play it all ways, and their performances are properly dense and intriguing. Ophüls, meanwhile, worries away at the surface detail (his films are always beautiful) while Burnett Guffey does the sort of deep focus camera trickery and superb lighting that made him popular with everyone from John Ford (The Informer) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Foreign Correspondent) to Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde).
If you’ve seen the 2001 film The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic, you’ve seen an update of the same story. The Reckless Moment eats it for breakfast.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022