#211. The Reckless Moment (1949)

Having not left sooner for a visit up north when my grandmother was transferred from the ICU (her second visit in a short span, I think) to palliative care at home, and having not seen her and been able to trade goodbyes before her death, my mom is, understandably, pretty mad at my brother and self and a couple cousins who could’ve made it up there. She’s up in Sebastian FL now among the relatives who live there, making arrangements for the Celebration of Life we’re having for her this Saturday (one of my grandma’s final requests was that there be no funeral, she wanted more of a party instead), and I watched the first half of The Reckless Moment knowing that my mom, who’s been dishing a hard two-day silent treatment, was going to initiate a conference call among my brother and me at around the 40th minute. I started stressing. I’m not great with these sorts of confrontations, especially when somebody’s about to have a methodical sit-down with me to address some selfish or reckless thing that I did.

            So the part of the movie I watched in this moment of dread was the first act – where a concerned mother hides the body of a much older man that her daughter was dating and has now, after he made some unwanted advances, accidentally killed. Just a few hours later, the body is found. The local newspaper releases a special afternoon edition about the body turning up on shore (the family at the center of the story lives on a beach).

There’s talk of murder all through the town.

            Meanwhile the mother/hero, Lucia (Joan Bennett) has to go about her daily routine, tend to her responsibilities and engage with the usual run of people, keeping cool, letting on about nothing. But she’s terrified. Stammering, absentminded, fretting over loose ends. It was painful to watch because her restlessness looked a lot like what I was experiencing at the moment, waiting for my mom to call. Eerie. Probably the most gruelingly confrontational experience I’ve had with a movie since Phantom Carriage, where the depiction of an aimless, broke, embittered and misanthropic drunk seemed (at the time, given where I was in life) to be a long, cryptic, accusatory finger pointing straight at my chest through the screen.

            And then my phone rang.


            And it wasn’t so bad. She and my brother are a lot alike and so they go at each other pretty hard, talking over one another for sometimes ten or fifteen seconds at a time. Stressful. But we all got our points across, the waters are calm, and we’ll be seeing her on Saturday for the “celebration of life”.

            The Reckless Moment is a strange breed of domestic noir, like a lighter and swifter version of Mildred Pierce, but it also seems like a new decade’s breed of noir. It’s still set in the 1940s but, as I mentioned with Gun Crazy, looks like it’s forecasting the ‘50s – it’s a strong feeling, tough to explain, but I think that the 1950s are here in the depiction of the suburbs, and the glut of cars in the street, and men’s fashion (the pants are lower, and so are the neckties). Also interesting is the daughter, Beatrice (Garaldine Brooks), who, when confronted by her mother about an unsavory affair she’s having with an older man, says, “When you’re seventeen today, you know what the score is.”

            Gore Vidal said, “Until the rise of American advertising, it never occurred to anyone anywhere in the world that the teenager was a captive in a hostile world of adults.”

There’s this vibe like the postwar mentality has established its footing. What I’ve read is distinct about 1950s American culture is that, for the first time, popular culture was youth culture. I think Rebel Without a Cause is supposed to be one of the pillars of this. The idea of a teenager here, in Reckless Moment, making a remark (however offhand) to suggest that she, like others her age, isn’t so naive as, say, Theresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt suggests some kind of cultural shift. Just not quite sure what it is yet.

James Mason (who was odious but attention-stealing in both The Man in Grey and Odd Man Out) plays a thug who’s tryna blackmail Lucia with some love letters that got traded between her daughter and the older lover. He ends up falling in love with her, though, and we can see some great subtle facial stuff in Bennett’s performance where you can kinda see that she’s reciprocating some of his feelings, just a tad, but she’s also exploiting them. Using his good graces to help clear her daughter’s name.

What’s nerve-racking about their semi-romance is that Lucia is married, her husband is just outta town for the duration of the movie, and we know that, in accordance with 1940s censorship, if she trespasses upon the sanctity of her marriage then she’ll have to be punished. So while the movie’s packed with terrific tension concerning how she’ll clear herself of all this much, especially as a mob boss starts twisting Mason’s arm to clean things up in his own way, I think the progression of American movies through the List up to now has taught me that, by the hand of studio people, our hero’s safety is in greater jeopardy at the hands of her libido than the barrel of a gun.

I read somewhere that whenever the camera takes such a position that a troubled character is framed behind bars, it’s supposed to suggest their feeling of imprisonment, which is maybe a little too easy for a director like Ophuls to’ve indulged but, in this case, it does kinda fit.

This is directed by Max Ophuls, who’s appeared on the List already with Letter from an Unknown Woman and who I think pops up another couple times, and whose body of work I’m mostly interested in exploring on account of Paul Thomas Anderson has cited him as a major influence.

But yeah, this movie’s terrific! Quick and complex and exciting and also historically interesting if you’re looking at it within the context of like what was changing in American culture just then.

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