Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) seems to have it all. She is happily married with two kids and a nice house. Unlike the other romances in Max Ophüls‘ filmography, The Reckless Moment is not a film in which Lucia’s heart is broken. She and her husband Tom genuinely love one another. However, contrary to appearances, she does not have it all. Tom is away in Berlin and will, as he informs her, not be home for Christmas. Her teenage daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) is dating an older man of whom Lucia does not approve (who later turns up dead). To make matters even worse, the mysterious Donnelly (James Mason) appears and intends to blackmail Lucia, showing her love letters Bea wrote that would incriminate her. A mix of noir and melodrama, The Reckless Moment is another great Ophüls film that receives a loving release from Blu-ray label Indicator.
Ophüls found a sweet spot in blending noir and melodrama in his career, and does so with great success in The Reckless Moment. When it wants to be, the film is a tense and thrilling noir with Lucia having to fend off Donnelly and, eventually, his boss Nagel (Roy Roberts). It plays off of her status as a housewife and mother quite well, showing her utilizing everything she has in her possession to try to pay the money while even deriving tension from her crunching the family budget. Conversations between Donnelly and Lucia during their drive to Los Angeles prove quite thrilling, even if what they discuss is relatively mundane. Ophüls never goes too absurd, always remaining restrained and honest, leaning on the already anxious atmosphere to provide the suspense the film needs. The same honest approach applies to the melodrama. It finds two lonely souls coming together as they find an uncommon middle ground, amidst all of the criminal tension building around them. What drives this film is that everyday emotion, forcing Lucia to put it all on the line for her family and Donnelly to reconsider his role in life. Between the two, The Reckless Moment proves to be both thrilling and unexpectedly moving.
When it comes to the characters, The Reckless Moment especially shines. There are echoes of later dramas from Douglas Sirk when it comes to Lucia, examining the life of a suburban housewife. As Donnelly says to her, “You’re quite the prisoner, aren’t you?” Though she responds, “I don’t feel like one,” it is clear there is a sliver of truth to his words. Lucia is genuinely happy, aside from the crushing isolation of missing her husband. She loves her family and everybody there. Nonetheless, Ophüls naturally critiques this societal prison Lucia is locked in, while DP Burnett Guffey also works it into the visuals, often using shadows or literal bars to further encase Lucia. For her, the family she has is at once both suffocating and everything she ever wanted. It has severely limited what she can do, either due to their constant questions, her self-doubt when her husband is not there, or her personal sacrifices for her kids. Yet, no matter the societal barriers, she remains strong and determined. No price is too high to pay if it means defending her family. Bennett is terrific in the role, capturing the stoic demeanor that defines Lucia as well as the reserved emotion that pours out of her at the end. Lucia is a brilliant character, one that Bennett endows with grace and resolve.
Matching this strong central character is Donnelly. He is a doomed man who, by his own admission, was “the bad one” ever since he was born. James Mason typically brings great charm to whatever character he plays – and that is true to a degree with Donnelly – but what truly shines through is the character’s self-loathing. He puts on a brave face, but seeing Lucia changes Donnelly in a profound way. There is never a spoken romance between the two, but there is a connection formed over the course of the film. Donnelly provides Lucia with someone who genuinely listens to her, and Lucia provides Donnelly with someone (aside from his mother) who sees a hint of goodness in him. The depth of emotion that Mason and Ophüls are able to provide for a character who could have been so one-note is impressive, a credit to both of their talents to draw out this conflicted soul. It plays quite well in the context of the film’s melodrama as well, adding tragedy to its taut suspense.
The strong emotion and dramatic elements are matched by the aforementioned visual work of Burnett Guffey. The Reckless Moment is consistently striking, utilizing heavy shadows that almost completely engulf the frame. There is a clear preference for intense over-the-shoulder shots, reserved for crucial moments in the storyline. Such scenes also heavily utilize the entire depth of field, furthering the tension of certain moments by placing characters in both the foreground and background. However, what proves to be most impressive are Ophüls’ trademark crane and tracking shots. Whether used as the camera nimbly moves about the exterior of a building or follows Lucia as she moves through her home, the camera movements are terrific. Not only are they technically proficient, but they have both an immersive and thematic purpose, dropping the audience right alongside Lucia in her hectic, closed-in home life.
The Reckless Moment is a great match of melodrama with noir, wonderfully directed by Max Ophüls with matching strong performances from Joan Bennett and James Mason. Proving quite affecting in its characterizations and eye-catching cinematography, The Reckless Moment is an incredibly rewarding watch. Ophüls rarely disappointed and this film stands as yet another one of his achievements, highlighting his skill in bringing out nuance and the subtle emotions that define a person. In the process, he critiques suburbia and offers commentary in a way that Douglas Sirk would emphasize in the decade to come, creating an incredibly well-rounded film. As a result, The Reckless Moment is suspenseful, emotional, and thought-provoking, in all of the best ways.
Indicator Blu-ray Extras:
Indicator have made available a wealth of extras in this release. There is a 36-page booklet included with a great essay on “Caught Women” in Ophüls’ work written by Samm Deighan. As the on-disc extras are largely focused on Ophüls and Mason, this piece centered on the women in the film is quite welcome. The on-disc extras cover The Reckless Moment in great detail, particularly in the interviews with author Lutz Bacher and director Todd Haynes. For the former, Bacher wrote a book on Ophüls entitled Max Ophüls in the Hollywood Studios, using many of the details from that work to analyze The Reckless Moment. The interview nicely balances great production details with an in-depth analysis of Ophüls’ directorial style in The Reckless Moment. It is especially interesting to learn how the requirements of a low-budget studio production impacted particular scenes in the film. The interview with Haynes does much of the same with the two men’s observations combining to offer a comprehensive experience. The two extras make one want to watch The Reckless Moment again, this time focusing on the details the two men point out. Haynes also draws parallels to his own work, in particular Far from Heaven. As a fan of Haynes, it is interesting to see how he was influenced by The Reckless Moment.
The other three on-disc extras are compiled via a pair of lectures at Birkbeck, University of London held by Adrian Garvey and Sarah Thomas. Included is also an audience Q&A with both lecturers. While the Q&A comes with many of the typical pitfalls of audience Q&A sessions, there are a few keen observations that lead to compelling discussions. In particular, a discussion of the film’s politics is incredibly interesting. Throughout, Garvey and Thomas demonstrate great knowledge of the film and James Mason, making their observations and conversations with the crowd quite compelling. For their respective lectures, Garvey tackles the earlier years of Mason’s career while Thomas focuses on the later portion. Though the discussion only intermittently touches on The Reckless Moment, it is a welcome look at his style as an actor, how he changed, and the type of role he played in this film. Overall, the extras are a welcome complement to the film, making for a complete and rewarding package.