You live in a small close-knit community where everyone knows you and yours. Your family is all around, both depending on you and making endless demands on your time. You are also the victim of a blackmailer. What do you do and who do you turn to? That’s the problem at the centre of the 1949 film noir thriller from Max Ophuls, The Reckless Moment.
Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) lives in a small California town. She is married with two teenage children, has a housekeeper and a large comfortable home. On the surface everything appears idyllic, but chaos is looming. The film opens with Lucia driving to Los Angeles to meet a man called Ted Darby. Darby (Sheppard Strudwick) has been dating the daughter of the family and Lucia means to put an end to it. She fails to do so and Darby comes secretly to the house later that night. The daughter (Geraldine Brooks) meets him in the adjacent boathouse and, after a quarrel, Darby stumbles off the landing to skewer himself on an anchor below. Lucia discovers the body the next morning and, with her husband travelling on business in Europe and she wanting to protect her daughter, decides to dump the corpse and cover everything up. It looks like she might pull it off until Martin Donnelly (James Mason) turns up with some compromising letters and proposes blackmail.
Joan Bennett will be familiar to any fan of noir due to her work with Fritz Lang on a number of pictures, most notably Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. There’s no femme fatale style vamping here though, instead she’s the competent, protective mother driven to near despair as the situation spins out of her control. Her measured underplaying is one of the factors which keeps the movie rooted in noir territory and saves it from straying into melodrama. The other factor is James Mason. Two years earlier Mason had given a blinding performance in Carol Reed’s beautiful and masterful Odd Man Out. Here he’s playing another doomed Irishman, albeit one with more dubious motives. He’s very believable in the role and there’s nothing that seems phony as we witness his self-doubts transform him.
The film is well directed by Ophuls and excellently photographed by Burnett Guffey. The location work adds to the realism and the interiors of the big open-plan house seem, paradoxically, to heighten the sense of domestic claustrophobia. It’s almost impossible to hold a private conversation anywhere as family members bustle in and out, cheerfully oblivious to the treachery that threatens them all.
The movie is available in R2 from Second Sight and it’s a great looking, clean transfer. The disc also has decent enough extras with a commentary, a good introduction and a stills gallery. Definitely recommended.