The Reckless Moment (aka The Blank Wall) (1949)
Columbia Pictures 82 mins
Directed by Max Ophuls
Cinematography by Burnett Guffey
Screenplay by Henry Garson and Robert W. Soderberg
Adapted by Mel Dinelli & Robert E. Kent
from Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s story, ‘The Blank Wall’
Lucia Harper – Joan Bennett
Martin Donnelly – James Mason
Ted Darby – Shepperd Strudwick
Nagle – Roy Roberts
Sybil – Francis Williams
After concealing her daughter’s accidental killing
of a man a housewife is blackmailed by a hood
The Reckless Moment, Max Ophuls’ last Hollywood picture is a great film. It is a brilliant example of the dynamics of the auteur working inside the studio system. Ophuls’ takes a basic blackmail story and through his long and fluid takes and subtle mise-en-scene infuses it with a complexity and subtlety rarely matched in film noir. Joan Bennett as the threatened middle-class housewife, Lucia Parker, and James Mason as the Irish blackmailer Donnelly, are both impeccable, but it is Joan Bennett as the wife and mother plunged into a noir world of criminality that carries the drama forward. She struggles to defend an idyllic domesticity against a rising tide of darkness that would engulf her family. Veteran noir cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, smoothly establishes the impending entrapment within mobile tracking shots that move from light to dark, from unruffled clarity to shadows and unsettling movement, from the beguiling every-day to menacing disturbance. The Reckless Moment is richly rewarding and its richness is best savored over repeated viewings.
After viewing the movie and starting my research, I became more and more perturbed. Reviews by many respected critics were scathing at worst or damning by faint praise in their dismissal of the film. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times on the film’s opening, rather smugly concluded “a feeble and listless drama with a shamelessly callous attitude”, and Variety said “a tense melodrama projecting good mood and suspense… matter-of-fact technique used in the script and by Max Ophuls’ direction doesn’t permit much warmth to develop for the characters”. Many books on film noir ignore it or mention it only in passing.
Finally, I came across an article by the film critic Robin Wood, where my feelings about the film were confirmed, and alas I was also made starkly aware of my signal failings as a writer on film. The article is titled, Plunging Off the Deep End into the Reckless Moment’, and appeared in the Spring 2002 edition of the CineAction film journal. The Deep End is a 2002 remake of Ophul’s film by Scott McGhee and David Siegel, which beside the Ophuls original, Wood says, “dwindles into insignificance”. In his erudite article in a shot-by-shot analysis of a particular early scene in Ophuls’ work, Wood perceptively draws out Ophuls’ mastery and his purpose, with flair and passion:
If [Ophuls] had directed The Reckless Moment in complete freedom the film would certainly have been different; it would not necessarily have been better. The film’s richness of meaning derives from its being ‘a Hollywood film’ as well as ‘an Ophuls film’: it is nourished by a whole system of generic convention and highly developed methodology (which Ophuls everywhere modifies, inflects and enriches). I personally find it a denser, more complex, ultimately more rewarding film than La Ronde, a film generally thought of as ‘pure Ophuls’. The richness derives largely from the interaction between two major Hollywood genres, usually regarded as incompatible: the woman’s melodrama and film noir. Its structure is built upon an alternation between the domestic world and the noir world, represented by Lucia’s upper middle-class home near a small town, and Los Angeles. The film opens with Lucia ‘invading’ Los Angeles to confront Ted Darby [an older man Lucia’s daughter is seeing played by Shepperd Strudwick], which is answered by Donnelly’s invasion of the home; in the second half the pattern is repeated by Lucia’s step by step descent (bank, loan office, pawn shop) into the noir world in her efforts to raise the blackmail money… The second shot is the sequence’s longest and most elaborate long take with camera movement (just over two minutes without a cut). Lucia completes her entry into the dining room; the table is laid for the family dinner; there is a window in the background, darkness outside, where Lucia and Donnelly will end their negotiations, the sequence as a whole leading Lucia from the apparent security of the brightly lit dining room into a world of darkness and shadows, the Donnelly world of film noir… Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this extremely complex, marvellously controlled shot is Ophuls’ treatment of space, its effect almost subliminal. On the one hand we have been given, in unbroken movement, a tour of the entire open plan layout of the downstairs of the house, the exact relation of kitchen to dining room, dining room to living room, the various exits and possible entrances, all clear if we concentrate. At the same time, however, the continuous reframings, the camera’s turns and returns, become so disorienting that all our confidence in knowing exactly where we are, in what direction we are facing, is undermined. It’s an extraordinary effect, at once establishing and destroying our sense of the well-designed security of the bourgeois home corresponding, we may feel, to Lucia’s growing sense of anxiety and dread, her sense that the secure existence (her own, her family’s, the household’s) she has so carefully (and at such personal cost) striven to build and preserve is crumbling around her. The effect is underlined by the two most obvious decisions evident in Ophuls’ mis-en-scene: Lucia’s stasis, as if paralysed, contrasted with Donnelly’s constant restless movement about the room? the tracking camera and its continuous reframings that consistently favour Donnelly, bringing him into the foreground, his dark overcoat dominating the image, Lucia reduced often to long shot or excluded from the frame altogether…
I recommend the full article to readers of FilmsNoir.Net – but only if you have seen the movie, which came out on DVD in 2006.
6 thoughts on “The Reckless Moment (1949): “we want to liquidate our stock while the market is high””
Now here is a film I have much affection for from a director I adore more than almost any other! Tony, you are a true Santa Claus for bringing us movie lovers this terrific Christmas present, adorned with an extraordinary essay by the incomparable Robin Wood.
I cannot blame you one iota for your indignation, at both Crowther’s smug dismissal nor that by Variety. But to be honest, Wood’s magisterial treatment, which rightly likens the film as a kind of remake of 2002’s exemplary THE DEEP END, is close to the current day assessment of the film by most. No, it’s not MADAME DE or LOLA MONTES, but it’s a splendidly-crafted film with psychological tensions and deft crafsmanship. Joan Bennett has never been better in her career. I’d even put this performance above her celebrated SCARLET STREET turn. And I wholly agree with you on the quality work of Burnett Guffey, who photographed IN A LONELY PLACE, FROM HERE THE ETERNITY, HUMAN DESIRE, ALL THE KING’S MEN and BONNIE AND CLYDE in a distinguished career.
I applaud you on these statements:
“the film is a brilliant example of the dynamics of the auteur working inside the studio system.”
“Ophuls takes a basic blackmail story and through his long and fluid takes and subtle mise-en-scene infuses it with a complexity and subtlety rarely matched in film noir.”
Robin wood’s essay is essential reading for everyone.
I don’t know what else I could add except to nod agreement. This is surely Joan Bennett’s finest hour and this is the kind of film that slowly pulls you in. It’s not the director’s best work, but it’s quite memorable. Nice review Tony.
Thank you kindly Allan and Sam for your comments and additional exposition. Allan, I agree that this is Joan Bennett’s best performance.
I look forward to viewing more of Ophuls’ work – though it is hard to find over here.
Thanks for your review and the link to the Wood article. I just recently watched this and your are absolutely right that it gets better with repeated viewings. There is so much going on in the movie. The Wood article nicely articulates the complexities and just how effective Ophuls’ direction is. And Joan Bennett is absolutely perfect and Mason is deceptively good in a tricky role.
Thanks for your very perceptive and welcome comment kat.