Sunday 18 March 2012

1,001 Films: "The Reckless Moment" (1949)

The Reckless Moment is an atypically sunny thriller, shot on bright, bland L.A. locations in the run-up to Christmas, about housewife Joan Bennett's attempt to cover up the (accidental) death of her daughter's sleazeball lover, and her subsequent blackmail at the hands of silver-tongued Irish Machiavelli James Mason. Thematically, Max Ophuls' last American picture before returning to Europe is something like The Desperate Hours - a film about dark forces insinuating themselves into an all-American household. (Mason simply shows up unannounced one afternoon in Bennett's parlour.) Yet in the hands of this director, more commonly associated with melodrama than noir, greater emphasis is placed on the workings of that household (the source was a short story published in the pages of Ladies' Home Journal, and it shows) than on making any kind of sense of its male antagonist. The run-up to the festive period, with its own stresses and strains, adds a further dimension to the heroine's predicament, and Ophuls appears more interested in eliciting sympathy for Bennett than suspense from a sequence describing her descent into the poverty-row of loan sharks and pawnbrokers.

The mismatch between director and material, so striking at first, becomes somewhat less noticeable as the story plays out: Ophuls effectively turns the drama into another of his lopsided, infelicitous love triangles, with Bennett having to choose between a husband who's too busy to come home for the holidays, and a hood who'd happily kill for her. (From the final shot of the housewife "trapped" between the banisters of a staircase, it's possible to read this as not much of a choice at all.) Intriguing rather than particularly involving, a film about reckless moments and impulses that remains controlled and detached to the very last frame, it's no surprise The Reckless Moment piqued the interest of the clever-clever directorial double-act David Siegel and Scott McGehee, who updated the premise in their The Deep End, from 2001: Tilda Swinton replaced Bennett, a gay son took the place of the headstrong daughter, and the character of the morally ambivalent blackmailer remained as open to question and interpretation as it ever had been.

The Reckless Moment is available on DVD via Second Sight.

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