I recently watched The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949) for the first time, and need to watch it again. For now, I’m writing down my initial impressions. My first thought is that the film is very uncomfortable to watch and listen to. It is the one Ophuls film I’ve seen that is a real domestic melodrama, in the sense that it’s about a woman and her home. Lucia Harper lives in Balboa Beach, one of the affluent beach cities south of Los Angeles, in a large, suburban/small town house, complete with a big yard and shutters on the windows. The Harpers also have a beach house and a boat. They have two children, Bea and Tom, and a maid, Sybil (acted magnificently by Francis E. Williams, who is uncredited in the film!). Lucia’s loquacious father-in-law also lives with them. Mr. Harper is absent, on business in Europe, which is the prelude to the drama. Lucia can’t confide in him, get his advice, and he can’t step in to solve her problems with her 17-year-old daughter, an art-school student, who has fallen in love with a sleazy con-artist, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick) posing as an art dealer.
The world in the film is divided into the domestic sphere where Lucia is authoritative and decisive in managing the household and her children, and the world outside, where she is vulnerable and powerless, potential prey a) to the townspeople’s gossip and scandal-mongering, and b) to a world of male predators in L.A. Joan Bennet, as Lucia, switches back and forth between being tentative and frightened in the outside world and the ultimate authority at home. Through a “reckless moment,” the two worlds merge; she unwittingly invites predators into her home, and so the catastrophes that befall her multiply. Her recklessness consists of underestimating the world outside her doors and believing that it is much the same as the world inside. She makes the mistake of attempting to tell Darby, whom she makes an appointment to meet at a bar in L.A., to stay away from her daughter. He tries to extort money from her, then shows up in secret at the boat house to do the same with her daughter, who hits him over the head and runs back to the house. As he groggily leaves the boat house, he has an accident, falls from the second floor and lands on the anchor for the Harpers’ boat, which kills him. (I love the fact that he falls on their anchor!)
Without recounting more of the plot, there are a few things I want to note. The first is that life inside the Harpers’ home is no Frank Capra-esque model of a happy, boisterous family life. Rather, it is excruciatingly loud—everyone yells, including Lucia, chaos threatens, the grandfather dodders around aimlessly. Filmic space is restricted by architectural objects, Ophuls uses high and low angles, and sometimes canted angles, and life seems to revolve around the staircase to the second floor, the children either on their way up or down, or yelling up or down. Throughout the film, Lucia issues directives to her children and to her maid, and staves off the grandfather’s inane questions about what’s bothering her.
The outside world is equally uncomfortable; at Balboa’s post office, we view everything over the shoulder of the clerk, through the bars on his cage, and listen to the townspeople gossip about a body the police just found, a murdered man who was dumped in a nearby swamp. At the pharmacy/dry goods store, an unusual purchase is noted by the clerk, who knows what the Harpers buy, and is curious about the man accompanying Lucia (Martin Donnelly, played by James Mason), one of her blackmailers. In L.A., the streets are filled with potential predators, sizing Lucia up for whatever they might be able to get out of her. In L.A., too, she is turned down for a loan she wants to take out to pay off her blackmailer by using her expensive jewelry as collateral, because the loan office (“No Questions Asked” reads their sign) won’t take her application seriously without her husband’s approval. The only thing she has to threaten her blackmailers with is to tell them she will call the police, and she threatens to do so at at least 3 different points in the film. They completely dismiss her. So, even invoking a masculine authority doesn’t shore up her power in the world outside her home.
There is no beautiful scene in the film, though the shots are incredible and dense—not of Balboa, the beach, the hills, not of L.A. Everything is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing. The reason for this is not just that Ophuls made this film as a film noir, but because it is a woman’s film, more precisely a maternal melodrama, and Ophuls’ take on the woman’s film is that the woman can’t be comfortable in any environment. There is no peace in any setting of the film. Even dialogue is shot by filming the back of the speaker’s head, while the character listening is shot along a diagonal in a long shot, silent and watching the speaker. This technique emphasizes, for example, Lucia’s reactions to what her blackmailer says to her, but not in the usual way (shot-reverse shot). Rather, the stillness of her body is like paralysis, and we never get the satisfaction of a close-up in which we can “read” her expression. But, her body says it all. In a crucial scene near the end of the film, as she moves back and forth between the house and the boat house, the exterior of the boat house is illuminated by one overhead lamp swinging back and forth in the wind, which measures the agitation in the scene.
The last thing I want to write for now is that in woman’s films, the woman is trapped in some way. Here, Lucia is trapped on every level, not just by multiple blackmailers and extortionists. She is trapped by motherhood and the domestic management allotted to a married woman. The absence of her husband is made superficially to seem as if it’s crucial: he would be her saving grace if he were present, preventing catastrophe. This is substantiated at the very end of the film, when over the phone, Lucia tells her husband that she can’t wait until he returns. The film details for us exactly why she “can’t wait”—not because she isn’t decisive, clear, strong, etc., but because she is trapped in these patriarchal structures as wife and mother—as woman, period—in which she is ignored, dismissed, invaded, preyed upon, and finally made to pay a price she hadn’t bargained for at all. So, there is no little irony in her statement. He won’t solve her problems; he’ll just compound them, not to mention the fact that she can never tell him what has happened in the first place. (In fact, I don’t remember if Donnelly takes the Harpers’ car to commit his final act of “love”/revenge. If so, that makes things even worse for her!)
Add to this that she is trapped in American suburbia, with its prying eyes and nose for scandal, in which everything is taken as a succession of surfaces. She is trapped by mothering—protecting her children—which leads to her first and second reckless moments, on the one hand, and triggers James Mason’s fantasmatic image of her as a/his mother, on the other, which leads to her downfall at his hands (Mason plays, not for nothing, an Irish Catholic, who idealizes-hates his own mother, and can’t live with his guilt about having killed a man in self-defense—after all, what would his mother think?). He exacts his revenge, and Lucia is his victim.
(More after my next viewing).