Monday, 19 January 2015

Noir of the week #5: The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)

(Image: Noir of the Week)
The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)

Frank Black
19 January  2015

In Max Ophuls' second excursion into film noir, he and his cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who would later win a Oscar for his work on From Here to Eternity (1953), excel in creating an atmosphere of fear in the familiar - here, a middle class house in a middle class suburb of Los Angeles. Based on a short story, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's The Blank Wall (1947), The Reckless Moment initially presents the audience with a wholesome post-war American family, the Harpers, living comfortably – though realistically - in Balboa Island in sunny California
reckless moment 1
But all is not what it seems: the father is absent on business in Germany, although there is constant reference to him and numerous phone calls and letters, and the daughter, art student Bea (Geraldine Brooks), has fallen for an older, crooked guy, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), posing as an ex-art dealer. Mother Lucia (Joan Bennett) seeks out Darby who asks for money to stay away from Bea; she then tells her daughter about his attempt at extortion and she confronts her lover in the family boathouse, where, after hitting him over the head with a torch, he stumbles through some wooden railing and skewers himself on an anchor!
Another layer of middle class respectability is peeled away when Lucia finds the body. Rather than contact the police and explain what happened, she makes up her mind to protect her daughter by disposing of the corpse in the lagoon. So far so good, but the body is discovered and a smooth-talking Irish gangster, Martin Donnelly (James Mason, who had just finished working on Ophuls’ first noir film, Caught, which had been released earlier that year) turns up at the house demanding money for love letters sent by Bea to Darby, but the film takes another turn as feelings grow between Bea and Donnelly.
It would have been easy, at this point, for the film to become melodramatic, but the script steers away from this direction and is helped by the expert, nuanced playing of Mason and Bennett. Donnelly is clearly enamoured with Lucia, admiring the way she protects and cares for her family, buying her a gift and hiding it in the groceries, calling her ‘Lucy,’ and clashing with his more threatening partner-in-crime, Nagel (Roy Roberts). He joins in various activities with the family, like helping the son buy an outboard motor, while at the same time, Lucia, in the absence of her husband, seems to find the opportunity to be resourceful a liberating experience and does not feel threatened by Donnelly; she goes out to lunch with him, for example, and borrows his change to make a phone call. While he sees her small-town life as a ‘prison’, paradoxically, it seems to be the secure kind of American Dream that this orphaned Irish immigrant yearns to belong to.
Ironically, while there seems to be no likelihood of Lucia responding romantically to Donnelly, she clearly likes him in  a break with that respectability he desires; in fact, their relationship would seem to reflect her daughter’s relationship with Darby – except that Darby was a lowlife through and through and Donnelly is more a sympathetic and even… decent man. He’s so decent, in fact, that he offers to pay half the cash to his blackmailing partner, Nagel (Roy Roberts), and eventually confronts him and kills him, sacrificing himself in an act of redemption, so that the American Dream life of the Harpers remains intact.
 The Reckless Moment
After Nagel’s death, Donnelly mutters, “He was better than I was: he had no illusions about himself.”

The film was loosely remade as The Deep End in 2001 by David Siegel and Scott McGehee.

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