The Reckless Moment

US (1949) Dir. Max Ophüls

Where would we be without our mothers to clear up after us? It doesn’t seem to matter what we do, our dear old mums will be there to fix it – short on cash, spill your drink, break a toy, rip your clothes, cut your finger, kill your boyfriend…

While her husband is in Berlin on business, Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) is left to deal with their 17 year-old daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) and her relationship with an older man of ill-repute, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). Lucia pays Darby a visit, offering him money to leave Bea alone which Darby seems keen to accept, but that night when Bea sneaks out to meet Darby, she gets angry when Darby admits this.

A tussle ensues and Bea escapes after hitting Darby in the head. The next morning Lucia goes to see Darby but finds his dead body, which she dumps in a nearby swamp, found later by the police. With the police investigation under way, Lucia gets a visit from Martin Donnelly (James Mason), a loan shark to whom Darby was indebted, demanding $5,000 not to hand over explicit letters Bea wrote to Darby to the police.

Based on the novel The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, this swift slice of classic film noir wasn’t so well received when it first came out, making a loss at the box office in fact, but in the years since, it has grown in reputation through reappraisal and exposure to a younger audience. In its favour, the 80-minute run time means nothing is wasted but the trade off is that key developments move too fast to feel credible.

The film gets off to a flying start in setting the scene of the cosy white middle classed family unit about to come under scrutiny, with the spoiled son David (David Bair) trying to be the man of the house in his father’s absence, the doddering old father-in-law (Henry O’Neill) also keen to assume this role, and of course the black housemaid Sybil (Frances E. Williams, who doesn’t even get an onscreen credit!).

Yet the folly of Lucia’s actions are only rational in the context of parental concern, and to make Lucia more sympathetic, husband Tom’s absence adds extra weight to the onus already on Lucia’s slight shoulders. She is portrayed as a strong woman from the onset in how she confronts Darby and won’t stand for his nonsense, but clearly a threat from a woman holds no truck in 1940’s America, so the “money = power” card is played instead.

Thinking her troubles are now over, except for her conscience nagging away for covering up her daughter’s accidental crime, Lucia is mortified when Donnelly shows up with the incriminating letters, calmly expecting Lucia to pay the money that would cover Darby’s debts with them or the police get the letters. Lucia needs time to do this, and while Donnelly plays it cool, his mysterious colleague Nagel apparently isn’t so understanding.

Here is a slight issue with the story: the sum is $5,000 which should be easy attainable for such a well-to-do family, even though in 1949, this was a lot of money, but Lucia pleads poverty and asks for time to raise the funds. This is a family with a big house, a car and a boat/boathouse, and the breadwinner is such an important and presumably successful businessman he needs to be in Berlin to conduct his business!

Unless the Harpers were living beyond their means or falsifying the tax returns this just doesn’t sit right at all, and it becomes less convincing as we watch Lucia struggling to get a loan from a dodgy money lending outfit (in other words robbing Peter to pay Paul) to having to pawn the expensive jewellery she has locked up in a safety deposit box. Donnelly, who inexplicably falls for Lucia, tries to negotiate easier terms but Nagel is having none of it.

Let’s be clear, the premise of the story is fine and has since been the recycled numerous times since so I have no beef with that, but desperate women resorting to pawn their goods for immediate cash don’t dress in fur coats and the latest fashions. Reading between the lines however, Lucia does look out of place at the pawn brokers and the loan agency and clearly not well versed in how they work, which we can take to mean this is a woman forced to dig deep to protect her daughter’s name.

In other words, the point of this journey is to illustrate how behind the money, expensive clothes and comfortable lifestyle, a mother is still a mother and when her back is against the wall, she’ll come out fighting for her family. Keeping hubby Tom out of the picture should qualify this as a quasi-feminist struggle but the flip side is that without him there, Lucia has no immediate access to their funds, so she is beholden to him no matter how resourceful she is without him.

Joan Bennett holds the film together with her resolute performance as Lucia, eschewing the grace under pressure trope associated with these roles to show Lucia’s gradually mental unravelling resulting from her one simple action. James Mason’s Donnelly shows flickers of the smoothie he would be known for later, but his Irish accent is flimsy at best. Geraldine Brooks was 24 when she played Bea, explaining why she was 17 going on 35 while David Bair was just 9 years old, looking and acting way older as David.

Perhaps it is a little pedantic to be so forensic about the minutiae of the plot, or maybe it is because this premise has been improved upon over the years, but for all its faults The Reckless Moment is a tidy and serviceable noir affair that could have been more with a bit of room to breathe, but works well enough to hold our interest as it is.