The Suspense of Domesticity in Max Ophüls’ ‘The Reckless Moment’

This lesser-known film noir starring Joan Bennett depicts how overwhelming being a woman and a mother was during the mid-20th century -- and within a genre usually reserved for men.
The Reckless Moment Joan Bennett

Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she breaks down a rare film noir from a woman’s perspective: The Reckless Moment. 

The genre of film noir traditionally exudes masculine energy. With hard-boiled characters, calculated plots, and palpable anger, it’s easy to assume that women were only granted the roles of the seductress or femme fatale when appearing in these films. That assumption is far from the truth, however, especially outside the confines of classics.

Hollywood made several film noirs from the female perspective. Many of them became prestigious re-claimed favorites later on, after receiving no respect upon their release.  Among them, the last American movie directed by Max Ophüls: 1949’s The Reckless Moment. Its female perspective provides unique challenges in a noir crime story and makes suspense out of domesticity.

The movie was adapted from The Blank Wall, a novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding originally published in Ladies Home Journal in installments. Its story follows Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), a housewife trying desperately to keep her nuclear family’s household from collapsing amidst murder, blackmail, and chaos.

Traveling from the coastal suburbs, Lucia makes the trek to Los Angeles in the first scene. She’s on a mission to keep sleazy middle-aged racketeer Darby (Shepperd Strudwick) from seeing her 17-year-old daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). Once the possibility of a bribe enters the conversation, Darby considers leaving Bea alone. Lucia decides he’s not worth the money, though, and instead promises to tell Bea just how easily Darby would be willing to give up their love.

Of course, Bea refuses to believe what her mother tells her. But when she sneaks out to meet Darby in the family boathouse that night, she confronts him about the bribe. He confesses to agreeing to be paid off, only because he’s desperate for money, and he wouldn’t have actually stopped seeing her.

She breaks down, feeling stupid for believing someone like Darby would ever love her. In her anger, she hits him over the head and storms off to tell her mother that she was right all along. What Bea doesn’t see is the aftermath of her outburst. Darby, now disoriented and injured, falls from the dock and plummets to his death. Back in the house, Lucia promises Bea she’ll never have to deal with a man like Darby again. Only, she doesn’t know how true that promise is.

The next morning, Lucia finds Darby’s body lying on the beach. Without hesitation, she does what she knows she needs to do to protect her daughter. She drags the body into her boat and dumps him on a shore away from their home all by herself. Just when she thinks she’s rid her family of disaster, though, a mysterious Irishman named Donnelly (James Mason) shows up at the house demanding money. Darby took a loan from Donnelly and his business partner, and he used love letters between himself and Bea as collateral.

Now that Darby has turned up dead, they’re threatening to send the letters to the paper if Lucia can’t hand over the $5,000. Donnelly inserts himself in Lucia’s life in order to blackmail her, but he falls in love with her in the process. His partner takes matters into his own hands to get the money from Lucia, but Donnelly kills him to protect her. He then flees with the body and crashes his car to make it look like an accident.

Just before he dies, Donnelly confesses to Darby’s murder in order to rid Lucia of any connection to the crimes that have made her week a living hell. Returning home, she has to act like the same woman she’s always been, taking care of her family once again, but it’s clear she’s changed forever and has no one to confide in.

Bennett takes to the mother character in The Reckless Moment with ease, despite the part being unlike the roles she had played previously. Throughout her very long career in Hollywood, Bennett was respected as a movie star but not necessarily as an actress. She went through several phases, from the pretty little blonde in the 1930s to a soap opera queen much later in her life.

When she took on the role of Lucia, Bennett had just cycled through the kinds of roles we most associate her with. She was one of the best dark femme fatale actresses of 1940s film noir, in such classics as Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. This role was a big change for her, requiring she cut her gorgeous brunette hair for a chaste short hairdo fit for a mother.

Yet watching Bennett as Lucia, you’d never guess this was new territory for her as an actress. She plays the doting mother well and shows restraint when her character is on the brink of losing control of her whole life. She doesn’t have the intensity that Joan Crawford has in Mildred Pierce or other respected noir stars at the time, but that’s not what Lucia needs. The straight face she maintains throughout the movie is not a lack of depth, but the result of being forced to repress her emotions for the sake of her family. Bennett gives just enough of a hint of the fear and hopelessness that Lucia is going through while staying true to the character.

This restraint is what makes the final scene so rewarding. After witnessing Donnelly murder a man and then speaking to him before he also dies, Lucia finally allows herself to cry. She can’t get herself completely together before coming home, but soon after, she wipes her tears and has to regain her composure to talk to her husband on the phone with her family yelling around her. It’s an understated moment to end on, but it says so much with so little.

The Reckless Moment‘s focus on Lucia creates a unique set of suspenseful challenges compared to noirs that focus on men. She is faced with limitations not there for men at this time in history, making escaping blackmail nearly impossible for her. Drumming up $5,000 immediately is something women just couldn’t do.

Lucia can’t withdraw large sums of money without her husband’s permission. She can’t take out a loan without her husband’s permission. All she can do is sell the only valuable thing that belongs to her, jewelry. Even then, she doesn’t nearly have enough money to get these men off her back. This makes for a stressful story by using the unfair conditions women dealt with every day.

And a man would not need to balance covering up a murder and maintaining a household at the same time, as a female protagonist does. There’s a claustrophobic tone to every scene she has in her home, which isn’t a place of refuge for her. It’s a place where everyone depends on her, bombarding her with requests and questions constantly. She never gets a moment of peace.

Ophüls effectively makes these domestic scenes of The Reckless Moment so exciting through his direction. He insisted on having sweeping tracking shots of Lucia throughout the movie. These shots were much more artistic — and more expensive — than those of other low-budget women’s pictures. Much to the chagrin of the rest of his crew, Ophüls’ decision paid off.

When Lucia returns home from her first LA trip at the beginning of the movie, the camera follows her as she makes her way through the house. There’s a spin to the shot that makes her world feel all-consuming. Ophüls pairs artistic visuals with this domestic setting and characters in a way that validates the female perspective as worthy of art.

Appreciation of Ophüls’ direction and the artistic nature of The Reckless Moment did not happen when it was released in 1949, unfortunately. Reviews were unfavorable, the box office numbers were abysmal, and Ophüls became fed up with Hollywood’s way of making movies. He went back to Europe and directed what many consider to be his baroque masterpieces: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), and Lola Montès (1955).

The artistic value of Ophüls as a director came late, but his style has had a lasting influence on the prestigious filmmakers of today. Paul Thomas Anderson owes a lot to Ophüls and (admittedly) his signature long tracking shots, which were a huge part of The Reckless Moment. Similar shots are present in so many of Anderson’s films, including Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and Licorice Pizza.

Ophüls, like so many other European directors in Hollywood during the studio era, brought unparalleled style to American cinema. The fact that he used this style to tell women’s stories and give Joan Bennett a new kind of role to star in, is something to appreciate today.

As for the movie itself, as years passed, it became evident how well The Reckless Moment represented 1949 and the decade that followed. Two years after its release, Joan Bennett’s husband, Walter Wangs, who also produced the movie, shot her agent, Jennings Lang, after suspecting the two were having an affair. The incident became a huge scandal, and Bennett’s own turbulent home life became apparent to the world.

That story is as thrilling as the film noirs that Bennett starred in, and the Love is a Crime podcast series breaks it down well, along with details of the production of The Reckless Moment. Bennett connected more with Lucia’s loneliness and sole responsibility of keeping her family together than anyone thought she did at the time. Years later, her daughter Diana said this role was her favorite of her mother’s because it was just like she was in real life.

The repression, inescapable responsibilities, and traumatic realities that women went through after World War II would not be commonly represented in entertainment until years after The Reckless Moment was made. Ophüls’ movie accurately shows how overwhelming motherhood was in America and within a serious genre normally reserved for male stories. Few films capture real life as well as that, and it’s a crime that no one realized until much later.

Emily Kubincanek: Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_