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The Reckless Moment (1949)
The Reckless Moment (1949) is a film noir melodrama directed by Max Ophüls, produced by Walter Wanger, and released by Columbia Pictures with Burnett Guffey as cinematographer. Starring Joan Bennett and James Mason, the film is based on The Blank Wall (1947), a novel written by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. The film The Deep End (2001) is based on the same story. California housewife Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) attempts to cover up what she believes (erroneously) to be her daughter's (Geraldine Brooks) accidental murder of an undesirable ex-lover (Shepperd Strudwick). Martin Donnelly (James Mason), a clean-shaven smooth-talker involved in organized crime, tries to blackmail Lucia by threatening to take Bea and Darby's correspondence to the police. Complications arise when he realizes his true feelings for Lucia and discovers the truth. Donnelly's associate Nagel, a initially mysterious figure, rows with his colleague who murders him, but Donnelly dies in a car crash with the corpse soon afterwards. Normality appears to return for Lucia. This was Mason's third U.S. film, after having appeared for director Ophüls in Caught, then Madame Bovary.
Written by Robert Soderberg and Henry Garson, the film follows the lengths to which Lucia will go to protect her family. In a stunning sequence, Bennett wordlessly finds the body, loads it into a boat and dumps it on the other side of Balboa with only the seaside winds soundtracking the event. She pulls it together, as if it were just a sizable chore, and begins to go on with life until the body is found and a man arrives at her house. One might expect a hard-boiled detective but instead there stands Mr. Donnelly (an excellent James Mason), an Irish blackmailer working for top hood Nagel (Roy Roberts).
The Reckless Moment is not a towering vision on par with Ophüls' late-period string of masterpieces though it is an immensely entertaining, wonderfully crafted minor work by a great artist. It has a smoldering, repressed perversity to it that becomes more apparent as Mr. Donnelly begins to fall for Lucia. His feelings lead not only to a largely unrequited outpouring of romantic intentions but also a fatal row with Nagel, concluding in a car accident. Bennett locates and harnesses Lucia's manipulative side with an exacting effectiveness that makes the tearful call to her husband at the film's end oddly chilling.
Though beholden to genre, Ophüls' touch is apparent in much of the film's technical design, especially his work with the lighting and with cinematographer Burnett Guffey (In a Lonely Place). The magisterial flourish of Lola Montes and The Earrings of Madame de... can be seen in larval stage in many of these shots and there's an intriguing busyness to the scene where we are introduced to Mr. Donnelly with Lucia's son running through the space with what looks like no pants.
Over 50 years later, the film would be reworked with a gay-son angle in 2002's The Deep End with Tilda Swinton as one hell of a mother wolf and Goran Visnjic as a more subtle Donnelly. Though not a bad movie, it lacks the immediacy that Ophüls conjures in both Lucia's inability to pay and Mr. Donnelly's need to please her. There's no little amount of Freudian melodrama undercutting the crime element in Ophüls' film and it creates a rivetingly complex nest of emotions between Donnelly and Lucia. It might be doomed love, but there's a glint of a simple case of satiated boredom in Bennett's face, as if she could have simply dreamt it up.