“The Reckless Moment” (1949) is a dark crime film directed by German filmmaker, Max Ophuls. The story, based on “The Blank Wall” by Elisabeth Sanzay Holding, is about Lucia Harper, marvelously portrayed by Joan Bennett. Her husband is working overseas, so she is forced to play both mother and father to their almost 18-year-old, trouble-causing daughter, Bea (Geraldine Brooks), and their younger, inquisitive son, David (David Blair). Bea, an aspiring artist, has become involved with a con man named Ted (Shepperd Studwick), who she thinks will aid her in her career. Lucia is against Bea’s involvement with a man like Ted, and soon an accident leaves Ted dead. Lucia knows that her daughter will be a suspect, and attempts to cover the death up. What she never expected was Mr. Donnelly (James Mason), a smartly dressed, well-mannered young man, who appears out of nowhere, holding love letters written to Ted from Bea. He, along with his partner (Roy Roberts), blackmail Lucia, who has no idea what she should do next.
A movie like “The Reckless Moment” often goes unnoticed, or at least unappreciated because it isn’t flashy or overly sophisticated. Max Ophuls directs with care and precision. His movements glide in a fluid manner that allows the audience to enjoy, without noticing his work. He is the film’s guide, but he makes sure that he (and his work) goes unnoticed as well. He is there to make sure that everything is presented the way he intended, without letting anything interfere. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey adds his usually delightful skill to the picture, but once again, it’s the fact that he doesn’t try to do too much that helps things move along- still, he deserves to be praised.
Ophuls was known throughout his career to be a feminist director. His leading ladies aren’t there for their sex appeal, but for their talents, both the characters and the actresses. Enter Joan Bennett. Bennett is the perfect fit for this type of role, just coming out of the 1940’s that saw her play many film noir characters, and just before the 1950’s that would give her the “motherly” roles that would consume much of her time from this point forward. This is her movie. She is the leading character, and she is very much alone. She dominates scene after scene, and even seems capable of taking on these blackmailers that are messing things up. Of course it helps that her husband, Walter Wanger, served as producer on “The Reckless Moment”, so between him and Ophuls, she had plenty of support in taking on an enormous role such as this.
James Mason is a wonder to behold, in what, in all reality, is a very small but crucial role. Already, at this relatively early point in his career, his screen presence is undeniable. He plays a no-good, low-down, contemptible man, but one that has a heart. It’s not an easy role to pull off, but Mason (who we would soon discover could do anything) makes it all look so easy.
Max Ophuls is one of those directors who has flown under the radar for many years. He made his early films in Germany, but (being Jewish) left for France before WWII began. By 1941, he had to move on once again, ending up in the United States, and (somewhat unbelievably) he was unable to find work. Before returning to Europe after WWII he made four films, including “The Reckless Moment”. It, along with the underrated “Letter From an Unknown Woman” (1948), are both marvelous examples of the kind of pictures that he was capable of creating. After the War ended, and he returned to the more comfortable confines of Europe, he would go on only to direct four more films before his premature death at the age of 54. These films, “La Ronde” (1950), “Le Plaisir” (1952), “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953), and “Lola Montes” (1955) are all magnificent features that perfectly illustrate how to turn a movie into a work of art. It was as if he could paint the images on the screen, so that forever we would have the ability of enjoying his vision- in each and every painstaking detail- just the way he would have wanted.
As long as I am standing up shouting my praise to Max Ophuls, I may as well include this short poem written about the director by James Mason, who also starred in another one of his American films, “Caught” (1949). Part in jest, part in honesty, Mason sums Ophuls’ directing style up quite nicely:
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max
Who, separated from his dolly
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy
Once, when they took away his crane
I thought he’d never smile again