The Reckless Moment

Dir: Max Ophuls, 1949. Starring: Joan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks, and James Mason. Film Noir/Import.
The Reckless Moment

What do a famous film director with a deep appreciation for Korean food and a handful of fellow middle aged customers who shop at Amoeba every single day have in common? They love the import DVD section. The import section is reserved for DVDs from different parts of the world that have different region coding from U.S. DVDs. If you have a region free DVD player you can watch them. What is surprising is how many film titles are only available as imports. 1984, Barfly, and The Magnificent Ambersons are just a few of the titles that either went out of print or were never released on DVD in the U.S. and can only be bought relatively cheaply as imports. Cinephilia can be a lonely and expensive calling made more frustrating by limiting what one watches to what the studios dictate as permissible for one to purchase. I begin this review extolling the virtues of Amoeba’s import DVD section simply because without it I would never have been able to see The Reckless Moment on DVD, which would have been a real shame because it’s one of the best thrillers released during the heyday of American film noir and perhaps one of the strongest feminist films I’ve ever seen. The Reckless Moment stars Joan Bennett as Lucy Harper, an upper middle class Californian housewife who looks after her teenage daughter and pre-teen son while her husband is perpetually away on business. Between her kids and her father-in-law she doesn’t seem to have any time to herself. Although her station in life is a privileged one, with all the perks such a position affords—hired help and a huge house to name but two—she is completely trapped by her situation without seemingly a moment to devote to herself. Her entire identity seems to be subsumed by motherhood. She is perpetually photographed in the film with the silhouette of her home’s staircase and other furnishings casting prison bar-like shadows across her. This isn’t a Douglas Sirk tearjerker about the spiritual emptiness of white American privilege (well, not completely), but rather a classic noir thriller, so let me get to the part of the story where someone gets murdered.

Bennett’s rebellious daughter Bea, played by Geraldine Brooks, is stepping out with a sleazy older guy whom Lucy knows is all wrong for her daughter. Bea is in art school which is shorthand in the film for being surrounded by all the wrong people. Mother and daughter fight but Bea refuses to budge. Lucy takes matters into her own hands by traveling to a seamy part of L.A. from her idyllic lakefront property to confront Bea’s boyfriend, Ted. She is determined to protect her family at all costs, and Ted turns out to be just as much of a lowlife as she thought he was. Later though, when Ted winds up dead just steps away from their beautiful home, Lucy, without knowing what exactly happened, must figure out how to dispose of the corpse and keep her daughter’s name out of the murder investigation. To complicate matters further, a couple of blackmailers turn up demanding $5,000 for Bea’s love letters to Ted which were used as collateral by Ted for a debt he never repaid. When asked by one of the blackmailers why she is doing so much on behalf of her daughter, Lucy looks him in the eye and offers up being a mother as the only reason necessary.

In a turn of events that almost remind one of the chaste love affair of Brief Encounter, one of the blackmailers turns out to have a heart of gold and becomes the only person to whom Lucy seems capable of revealing herself. A quasi romance and a tragic but tidy ending later, Lucy is back in her large house with its oblivious inhabitants and is still completely alone.

Bennett is excellent as Lucy. She is onscreen for almost the entire film and operates in an almost maddening state of hyper-responsibility at all times. In her all-consuming role as homemaker, mother, and disaster expert she must have dinner on the table by 6, even as she is forced to dump a corpse and deal with blackmailers. Although as a homemaker she is not taken very seriously by society, she is the only one who can keep her brood intact as mysterious and nefarious forces collude and threaten to obliterate her family. The Reckless Moment is certainly a noir—those aforementioned nefarious forces of darkness, both concrete and abstract, threatening to obliterate Lucy’s way of life seem to hover at all times— but like Mildred Pierce it’s a deconstruction of the domestic existence of the prototypical post-war, middle class, American female. Lucy may come from a different social standing and have a less histrionic relationship with her daughter than Mildred does but they’re sisters under the apron strings, to paraphrase a line from another classic thriller. They would do anything for their kids even as their sacrifice goes unnoticed. Lucy, with her almost totally non-existent husband and equally non-existent life of her own, must take care of everything without any of her family having the slightest idea of what she has done for them. Director Max Ophuls seems to be saying that the external threats Lucy works to fend off and the prison-like existence within her home become almost indistinguishable in their assault on her ability to live freely.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 25, 2010 12:12pm
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