Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Reckless Moment (1949)

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Who knew a 1949 film starring James Mason and Joan Bennett would be so obscure? It took me years to finally see this, and this would not have happened if TCM hadn’t finally premiered it this past January.  TCM has been on the air for almost thirty years, you would think The Reckless Moment might have found its way to the airwaves before now.  Yet, sometimes there are reasons a film doesn’t show up on TCM very often: it’s not popular, contract rights, lost prints, etc. Or, in the case of this film, it’s just not that good and not many people are clamoring to see it.  I suppose if the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book hadn’t listed it in its first edition many people wouldn’t have requested that TCM show it.  Ah, so much anticipation but so much disappointment—it reminds me of my first (and only) encounter with caviar.  For years I’d seen rich people on TV and in movies praise the glory of this delicacy, so imagine my disappointment when I tasted what amounted to salty Pop Rocks (without the sugar) in my mouth at a college luncheon.  How can you tactfully spit out such swill when you are surrounded by inquisitive academics who have a really bad habit of invading your personal space?  Perhaps my experience with The Reckless Moment wasn’t as bad as the one with caviar, but it was such a letdown.
reckm0yi6The great Max Ophuls only directed four Hollywood films: The Exile (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), and this less than stellar endeavor. Of the four, only Letter from an Unknown Woman showcases his true brilliance. Many critics would disagree with my assessment of The Reckless Moment, as one has went so far as to call it a masterpiece on par with Ophuls’ French marvels The Earrings of Madame de…(1953), Lola Montes (1955), and La Ronde (1950). I can’t bring myself to say this for many reasons—the most important being I can’t decide what type of film it is.  Is it a film noir or a melodrama?  Personally, it feels like a combination of both, and I don’t like to mix oil and water together. 
Joan Bennett plays Lucia Harper, mother of two and fixer of all.  When her incessantly annoying teenage daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) gets involved with an unsavory older man named Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), she pays the man a visit and threatens him.  After an unfortunate accident involving her daughter, in a max ophuls the reckless moment The Reckless Moment-5which Darby falls from the Harper’s pier and unto an anchor, Lucia must drag the body out to sea and dispose of it.  Not long after this unusual chore, a very calm Irish thug named Martin Donnelly (James Mason) shows up and demands $5,000 for some letters Bea wrote to Darby.
Donnelly’s interactions with the entire Harper family can only be described as bizarre.  I think this is what I most dislike about the film.  There are few would-be movie gangsters that I recall being polite and friendly to those from whom they are extorting money.  He gives horseracing tips to the father-in-law (Henry O’Neill) and helps Lucia’s son (David Bair) fix something on his car.  Oh, and then there is his quick infatuation with Lucia herself. Mind you, an infatuation he knows can’t go anywhere since she thinks he’s scum.  Perhaps it was the short running time (a brisk 82 minutes) or the Hollywood constraints Ophuls found himself working under, but I couldn’t believe the sacrifices that Donnelly makes for Lucia.  While unfulfilled love is a consistent Ophuls’ theme, it does not work here.
The acting is not the issue, as both Mason and Bennett give good performances. He is quietly menacing and she is confidently controlled.  Mason comes off as his usually does—as though he isn’t trying.  To me, Bennett’s character is the more interesting of the two.  120No matter what comes her way, Lucia always seems to steady herself and continue on with a cigarette in one hand and a plan in the other.  Thrown into a world so unlike her own she never seems to change—it’s perfectly natural that a blackmailer is in her living room and that her father-in-law wants to invite him to dinner. Perhaps if Ophuls had had more time to develop the story, or if the writers had written a better adaptation of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s “The Blank Wall”, Bennett’s strange performance could have saved this picture.  Who knows?
One thing, on a sort of side note, that we do know is that Bennett would personally find herself in a somewhat similar situation in 1951 when her husband, Walter Wanger (who produced this film), shot Bennett’s agent, Jennings Lang, because he was having an affair with Bennett.  Wanger’s sensational attempted-murder trial rocked Hollywood. Wanger pleaded temporary insanity (the crime of passion defense) and served four months.  Oddly enough, Bennett and Wanger remained married until 1965.  It is said that the clandestine meetings between Bennett and Lang were an inspiration for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960).  The event effectively ended Bennett’s film career, she would only make a handful of movies following the incident.

15 comments:

  1. In addition to the cigarette, there's also the fur coat Bennett always swanks about in - surely she could raise some $ on that alone. There is something of a Harlequin-fantasy-fiction quality about this film - how many blackmailers are as good-looking as Mason and possess that devastating Irish charm?

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    1. Mason was a charmer--that's for sure. I kept thinking the same thing about that coat. Her trip to the pawn shop almost had me in hysterics.

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  2. I have this one on my DVR. I usually like Joan Bennett films so now I'm very curious after your review, Kim. You bring up some good points.

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    1. Watch it through your own filter, Gilby! Joan Bennett is usually a treat.

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  3. Kim, you explain very well your reservations about this film. I'm a big fan of Ophuls and have wanted for years to see this. I'm one of those who requested that TCM show it and recorded it but haven't watched it yet. I did see its remake, "The Deep End" (2001). It replaced the daughter with a gay teenage son and had Tilda Swinton in the Joan Bennett role. I found it didn't really live up to its glowing reviews, although Swinton did convey her maternal determination quite effectively. I remember thinking that the villain of the piece didn't seem appropriately menacing. In any event, I'm curious to see the original and plan to watch it soon.

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    1. I never saw The Deep End--I remember being aggravated whenever I saw it listed on the movies channels, though--I wanted to see the 1970 Jerzy Skolimowski film of the same name. It took forever to see that one, too!

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  4. I’ve only seen The Reckless Moment once – I don’t recall it as a favorite noir, but I don’t remember it, either, as one of those few that I struggled to get through. But your post definitely makes me want to watch it again to see what you saw!

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    1. Well, shadowsandsatin, at least it's short, so it won't take that long to get through.

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  5. Kim, you raise some interesting points regarding “The Reckless Moment;” I likewise found myself wondering if it was melodrama, noir or an entirely separate genre, perhaps domestic noir. I was exasperated with Joan Bennett’s sense of guilt, and thought her daughter wasn’t appropriately repentant considering she was the source of her mother’s never-ending grief. I can echo Grand Old Movie’s sentiment’s in wondering why Joan’s character didn’t release her grip on the fur coat. Would the absence of the coat have been too difficult to explain to hubby when he returned, but asking the bank for a loan would go unnoticed? Despite the story’s weaknesses, I enjoyed the film and both Bennett and Mason did a good job with confusing material.

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    1. Her daughter was just asinine. Lucia couldn't let go of that coat because it was so ridiculous--it had to fit her character!

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  6. Kim, I haven't seen THE RECKLESS MOMENT and--despite your description as of it as disappointing--I'm probably more interested in watching it now. Part of that has to do with THE DEEP END, which I thought was pretty good. It had its flaws, but I was intrigued by the unususal relationship the protagonist and her blackmailer (I also enjoyed the Tahoe setting).

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    1. I hope you taped it,Rick--who knows when it'll be on again!

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  7. Kim, I always enjoy reading your posts. I know what you mean about anticipating something and then feeling let down when it didn't quite turn out as you thought it might. I laughed out loud with your caviar example and agree with you on being disappointed with it! I haven't seen "The Reckless Moment" but I loved your commentary!

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    1. Toto, all I can say is yuck and more yuck. I was raised by a country-cooking mother who would have fell out if she knew the price, let alone what it tasted like. She was my guest at a dinner once where aspic was served--oh, the look on her face! She still talks about it to this day.

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  8. I personally love this movie, but vive le difference! I bought a copy of it on ebay not knowing it was a bootleg and saw it that way. A lot of the films that Wanger produced had very convoluted copyrights; that's partly why it hasn't been readily available.

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