The Reckless Moment (1949)
Starring Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks, Shepperd Strudwick and William Schallert. Directed by Max Ophüls. From Columbia Pictures.
Lucia Harper (Bennett) doesn’t mess around. Though her husband is away on business, she takes matters into her own hands when her teenaged daughter, Bea (Brooks), refuses to stop seeing a much older man (Strudwick). Lucia leaves the family home in Balboa one evening to drive into Los Angeles to confront the man, named Ted Darby. Darby proves to be a real cad when he is willing to stop seeing young Bea if the price is right. Lucia, somewhat satisfied, heads home to reveal the truth about Ted to her daughter but she won’t be swayed.
Bea sneaks out late at night to meet Ted who reveals his true nature to her. Bea is livid and clocks Ted with a flashlight but it only dazes him. As he staggers, though, he falls on the business end of a rowboat anchor and expires. Lucia goes into action and hides the crime to shield her daughter.
Unfortunately, Bea has written a batch of letters to Ted that reveal much about their relationship. As the police investigate Ted’s death, blackmailing Irishman Martin Donnelly (Mason) shows up with the letters in his possession. Donnelly, working for a gangster-type, says he will take the letters to the police and implicate Bea unless Lucia comes up with $5000. As she struggles to raise the money, Donnelly takes a liking to her and tries to intercede on her behalf with his employer but Lucia – her regard growing for the Irish blackmailer – wonders if it will do her or her daughter any good.
Here’s another joyously serendipitous experience for me. Another random search of available films noir to watch revealed this beauty. I had never heard of it and was interested in the fact that it starred Joan Bennett at a later stage of her life than I was used to seeing her.
Columbia Pictures released this 82-minute film on December 29, 1949. It was a Walter Wanger production, a name I always instantly recognize from Algiers (1938). Wanger had been making films for about ten years, though, at that point and would go on working for almost every studio, often as an independent. Wanger and his leading lady on this film, Joan Bennett, had been married since 1940. Two years after this film was made, on December 13, 1951, the often-jealous Wanger was watching his wife as she met with her agent, Jennings Lang, to talk about Bennett working in television. As Bennett sat in her car with Lang, Wanger walked up to the vehicle and shot Lang twice. Unfortunately for Wanger, the shooting took place across the street from the Beverly Hills Police Department. Officers heard the shots and took Wanger into custody while Lang – who recovered – was rushed to the hospital. Wanger and Bennett separated but did not divorce until 1965. Bennett and Lang were in fact not romantically involved and Joan suffered most for what was considered at the time a scandal. Walter Wanger served four months at an “honor” farm and returned to producing movies, which he did until 1963’s Cleopatra which caused him to retire. Joan Bennett’s career came to a grinding halt. “It would never happen that way today”, she said in a 1981 interview. “If it happened today, I’d be a sensation. I’d be wanted by all studios for all pictures”.
The director’s name was new to me. Max Ophüls, a German Jew like producer Wanger, fled Germany for France in 1933. When France fell to the Reich, he travelled to the U.S. where he made but five films. Caught – also 1949 – is another film noir starring James Mason. The Reckless Moment was his last American film. Ophüls made four more movies in France and died in 1957, aged 54.
This film was based on a novel called The Blank Wall (1947) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Born in Brooklyn in 1889, Elisabeth married British diplomat George Holding and the couple had two daughters, one named Skeffington (born 1917). Holding wrote romantic fiction until the Great Depression when she moved to the more lucrative field of detective fiction, becoming one of the few females working in the idiom. Here she excelled. So much so that she garnered praise from none other than Raymond Chandler who called her “the top suspense writer of them all”. The Blank Wall became not only The Reckless Moment but also The Deep End (2001) starring Tilda Swinton.
Joan Bennett is an actress of no little repute. Starting in silent films, the sister of actress Constance Bennett made scores of movies from the 1920’s into the 1940’s when she began to appear in some legendary films noir, many directed by Fritz Lang. These include noir classics The Woman in the Window in 1944 and Scarlet Street a year later. Our film came near the tail end on Bennett’s film career and after this one she would appear in the decidedly un-noir films Father of the Bride (1950) and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951). She would wrap up her career earning much acclaim as the star of the gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, which ran from 1966 to 1971. Bennett, always somewhat dismissive of her stardom, lived to 80 and died in Scarsdale on Pearl Harbor Day, 1990.
James Mason had made many films in his native England by the time he arrived in Hollywood to make Caught with Ophüls in 1949. The Reckless Moment was his third US film and he would go on to a storied career, appearing in countless notable films – including the British noir Odd Man Out (1947) – while being nominated for three Academy Awards. Mason had as a close friend Charlie Chaplin and the two both spent their final years in Switzerland. Today their ashes rest only a few steps apart; Mason died in 1984, aged 75.
But the face that really struck me in this film is that of Geraldine Brooks. The gorgeous Miss Brooks was a stage actress who began appearing in films in 1947 in the film noir Possessed, starring Joan Crawford and Van Heflin. She followed that in ’48 with another noir, An Act of Murder before appearing in our film as the 17-year-old daughter, Bea (Brooks was 24 at the time). Her career, however, could gain no traction. After a couple of Italian films and an appearance alongside Glenn Ford in The Green Glove (1952) – yet another film noir – Brooks adjourned to television. She would return to films to appear in Mr. Ricco, a 1975 film that was one of the last for Dean Martin. Geraldine Brooks was married to author Budd Schulberg. The two operated a writers’ workshop for the underprivileged until 1977, when Brooks died of a heart attack while battling cancer.
As I’ve said, the real highlight of The Reckless Moment for me is the way I came across it. Taking a flyer on a film based on minimal knowledge of it can sometimes yield a wonderful experience. But for the rest of you, there is much to recommend this film. Joan Bennett is in most every scene in the movie and handles the role exceedingly well. She is a strong and determined woman and mother; the opening scene, after all, shows her confronting the cad dallying with her daughter. When Bea won’t hear a word said against Ted even then Lucia is non-plussed. Stumbling on her daughter’s “victim”, Lucia goes into action, dragging the heavy corpse and doing her best to shield Bea. Maybe Lucia goes about all this in a way that disregards Bea’s feelings but moms are usually right and here Lucia was bang on about Ted and goes about doing what she thinks is best. Here is a depiction of a strong woman. She is never much flustered and seems more than equal to the task of handling a blackmailer. Additionally, in the midst of all that is swirling around her, she still has the presence of mind to chastise her son, David (David Bair), about his eating habits and state of dress.
James Mason’s Martin comes in and plays it cool and detached. The letters in his employer’s possession would lack a power today but Lucia is determined to protect her daughter from scandal. The viewer knows full well that Lucia could never put her hands on $5000 so you’re left to wonder how this will shake out. Oftentimes you can form a pretty good idea of the outcome of a picture but I found in this case I really had no clue how the family would get out of this. Martin taking a shine to Lucia is staged well and seems realistic the way it’s presented. Watching Donnelly view the family dynamic and even interacting with Lucia’s father (Henry O’Neill) and son, you can see he is charmed by it all. He gives Pops a tip on the horses and helps young David with the heap he’s working on. There’s a pleasant scene depicting Lucia shopping with Martin along. He gets caught up in the domesticity of it all and makes a purchase himself; he’s concerned by how much Lucia smokes and buys her a cigarette holder that cuts down on the nicotine. Martin is a thug with a good heart; the Irishman may recall evenings spent at his dear mother’s knee while she sang “Mother Machree”. Here he encounters a good, competent woman and his feelings begin to turn. He helps Lucia in small ways until building up to sacrifice all, finding redemption in the process.
The only way you’ll be disappointed with The Reckless Moment is if it’s no longer here to watch.