A taut and nifty melodrama-noir with a strong reactionary bent, The Reckless Moment is essentially about love and the the redemptive acts of selflessness it can inspire, but it’s also about teaching a woman to know her place and the chaos that occurs when the nuclear family unit is splintered. The story is compelling enough, concerning Joan Bennett and the heap of trouble she gets into when she covers up a murder committed, accidentally, by her daughter, Geraldine Brooks. Yet The Reckless Moment‘s main attraction isn’t its script, however crackling it is at times, but that it sports master stylist Max Ophüls behind the camera (here credited as the mildly Americanized or, given the proximity to the end of WWII, de-Germanized “Opuls”. Nothing cries “Kraut!” like an umlaut.)
Ophüls, a bona fide master of camera movement and mise-en-scene, densely packs the frames with people and objects, allowing the camera to soak up the ornateness while emphasizing the crowded, crushing character of both Bennett’s domestic and criminal lives. (“You don’t know how a family can surround you at times,” she laments at one point.) Though set in the boondocks, 50 miles outside of Los Angeles in a small, somnolent seaside town, Bennett and her family’s waterfront house, the film’s primary location (it feels like a lightly opened-up stage play) is lavishly decorated. The camera, for its part, often winds through the film’s narrow aisles and hallways, following Bennett as she passes through them, figuratively navigating the labyrinth-of-lies that she’s wrought.
After Bennett hides the body of the dead man, an Irish blackmailer comes a-callin’, played by a strapping James Mason with a come-and-go brogue to match his fleeting meanness. Mason soon falls for Bennett, acting as surrogate husband (her man is away on business); he tries to help her deal with the threat posed by his boss, a tough-as-nails Roy Roberts, as Bennett scrambles to come up with an unreasonable amount of cash. She goes so far as to pawn her jewelry, echoing a scene Ophüls would revisit four years later in his renowned film The Earrings of Madame de…, a French melodrama whose main character is a pair of earrings; for an opulent stylist like Ophüls, a woman losing her jewels, her source of pride and grandeur, comes across as high tragedy.
Bennett begins the film as the only stolid figure surrounded by a tic- and gesture-crazy cast (eg. a nail-biting daughter; a watch-setting, hair-combingly slimy Shepperd Strudwick.) But as the situation becomes increasingly dire, she gradually loses her composure, until by the film’s end she is sprawled out on her bed in a fit of tears. Despite having sassy lines like, “when you’re 17 these days, you know what the score is; you’re not a child anymore,” The Reckless Moment is a deeply conservative tale, one about a woman who’s punished, essentially, for making big decisions without consulting her husband, for trying to wrest control of a situation and a family she has no business, as a woman, controlling. Her selfless act of love for her daughter, cleaning up her manslaughter, gets her into more trouble than she can handle; her act of love makes her a prisoner and a victim. She’s finally saved, though, when her love is paid in kind by the selfless act of another, of a man (Mason), that finally sets everything right. She ends the film on the phone with her husband, telling him that everything’s going to be OK… once he gets home, and the family unit is restored.