The Reckless Moment (US, 1949)

Intense drama

Intense drama

Max Ophuls is probably a name that doesn’t resonate with many but his directorial style is amongst the most elegant, emphasising fluid tracking shots that transform the composition whilst maintaining aesthetic coherence. The Reckless Moment was his last American film and his second with the great James Mason. Three of his four Hollywood films were melodrama, the first of which, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), is a classic. The Reckless Moment is as much thriller, some critics dub it a film noir, as a melodrama and it deals with how a bourgeois mother deals with blackmailers in the absence of her husband; it was remade as The Deep End (US, 2001) which I will be looking at soon.

Central to the power of the film, in addition to Ophuls’ direction, are the stars: Joan Bennett, cast against type as a respectable mother taht, as Todd Haynes puts it in his introduction on the DVD, goes into ‘maternal overdrive’ to protect her daughter. Her implacable spirit seduces Mason’s blackmailer, Martin Donnelly; it’s unusual for noir‘s femme fatale to be a mother. However, as became more common in ’50s melodrama, the film also critiques the bourgeois family. Bennett’s Mrs Harper (harpy?) constantly nags her children, seemingly without noticing she’s doing it.

I’m a big fan of James Mason, an actor of charm and subtlety not to mention his lovely voice (honed in Huddersfield). When Bennett tells him that all mothers, including his, would do the same as she it’s clear that Donnelly never had a mother like that simply from the look in Mason’s eyes.

Blackmailer Donnelly dominates the home

Blackmailer Donnelly dominates the home

While Ophuls is renown for his camera movement he doesn’t neglect composition as this deep focus still shows. I’m a sucker for this use of image to tell the story, for me it is the essence of cinema.

I was delighted to enjoy the film as I’m increasingly finding revisiting ‘past gems’, such as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (US, 1943), a disappointment. They have dated or I have become a jaded viewer; The Reckless Moment suggests the former.

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