USA / 1949
Director: Max Ophuls
Writers: Henry Garson, Robert W Soderberg, Mel Dinelli, Robert E Kent, from the story The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Cast: James Mason, Joan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks, Henry O’Neill, Shepperd Strudwick
The Reckless Moment was the last of Max Ophuls’ Hollywood pictures. He returned to Europe and this film-noir was a fitting swan-song to his adopted home. Happily married wife and mother Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) discovers the body of Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), her rebellious 17-year-old daughter Bea’s (Geraldine Brooks) undesirable lover.
He had fallen to his death after she hit him on the head in self-defence as he attempted to take advantage of her. Lucia hides the body in the marshes and life returns to normality until Martin Donnelly (James Mason), confederate of thug Nagel (Roy Roberts), turns up to blackmail Lucia over letters written by Bea to the dead man.
She is only able to raise a part of the money he demands but he softens as he begins to fall for her. He assures her she will only have to pay half the money since he will not take his share and Lucia tells him the truth about Darby’s death. But Nagel wants his money and confronts Lucia at her home. She is saved by Donnelly, who kills his boss but is mortally wounded in the struggle.
Ophuls made much of the deliberately matter-of-fact screenplay which prevented the melodrama from becoming overwrought, but underlying the plot was his view of American society, coloured by his cosmopolitan upbringing. He wanted to point out the hypocrisy in America, where crimes committed for ‘criminal’ reasons must, of course, be appropriately punished while those committed and concealed for the best of reasons, including maintaining the model American family, were excusable. In fact, if punishment threatened from a criminal source rather than the law, then again, rules could be successfully bent to ensure that, ironically, the morally good but legally guilty escaped. Bennett and Mason, both at the peak of their powers, gave superb performances, Mason in particular producing a character of sympathy and, in many ways, one more honest than Bennett’s.