Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Reckless Moment (Columbia, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I had watched a quite remarkable movie from 1949, a Columbia film noir called The Reckless Moment, directed by Max Ophuls from a script by Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent (“adaptation”), Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg (“screenplay”) based on a Ladies’ Home Journal story called “The Blank Wall” by a writer with the rather awkward name Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It’s a rarely shown movie that I’d been curious about ever since seeing, reviewing and absolutely raving about the 2001 remake, The Deep End, by Scott McGehee and David Siegel as co-writers, co-directors and co-producers. The film stars Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper, whose husband is off in Europe helping with the post-World War II reconstruction and whose 17-year-old daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks, who praise be looks enough like Joan Bennett that they’re perfectly believable as mother and daughter, a rarity in any movie; all too often casting directors merrily assign people who look nothing like each other and try to pass them off as biological relatives!) is messing around with a 30-year-old lounge-lizard slimeball named Ted Darby (Sheppherd Strudwick). Bea met Darby in Los Angeles, a 50-mile drive from the small beach community of “Balboa” (Santa Barbara?) where the Harpers live, where Lucia had allowed her to attend art college instead of going to a university. Lucia goes to the hotel bar where Darby hangs out and tears into him, ordering him not to see her daughter again, and Darby of course tells her to go get stuffed. Later Darby comes to Balboa for reasons that aren’t especially clear and Bea meets him there; he asks her for money, and that convinces Bea that every nasty thing her mom had to say about him was absolutely true and she confronts him then and there — they fight, Bea hits him with a flashlight, and he takes a header off their deck and lands on an anchor, impaling himself.

Thinking she’s actually helping, Lucia loads Darby’s body into her outboard-motor boat, dumps it in mid-bay and returns it, all in the dead of night, and decides to cover for Bea’s actions by telling the police (if they ask) that she and Darby never knew each other — only a blackmailer named Ted Donnelly (James Mason, star of Ophuls’ immediately preceding film Caught and billed first on the page for the film and its entry in The Film Noir Encyclopedia but second to Bennett on the actual credits — was the film later reissued, when Mason was a more important star, with his name first?) shows up with a packet of love letters Bea wrote Darby and demands $5,000 for them. From then on the film becomes a clash between Lucia’s visits to the noir underworld in a frantic attempt to raise the blackmail money without having to tell her husband what’s going on, and the fascinating pull-back of her middle-class suburban lifestyle — symbolized by her buttinski father-in-law (Henry O’Neill), Bea’s obnoxious kid brother David (David Bair) and their Black maid, Sybil (Frances Williams), who all seem to be hanging around whenever she wants to talk to Donnelly on the phone or he shows up. Donnelly has an attack of conscience about what he’s doing and seems inclined to go easy on Lucia, so his partner in crime, Nagle (Roy Roberts), turns up in person to put the squeeze on Lucia — only Donnelly confronts him, they fight, the wounded Donnelly strangles Nagle and then takes him out in his car and deliberately crashes it, killing himself and making Nagle’s death look accidental.

The Reckless Moment and The Deep End are surprisingly close; McGehee and Siegel made one major change in the story — instead of a straight daughter, Bea becomes Beau, the heroine’s Gay son (and the blackmail device becomes, not a packet of letters, but a videotape of Darby fucking Beau) — and a handful of minor ones; they moved the setting to Lake Tahoe (and turned the California-Nevada border into a metaphoric boundary between decency and corruption much the way the U.S.-Mexico border served in Touch of Evil) and changed the blackmailer’s agent from an Irishman (casting Mason as an Irishman seems to have been inspired by his success as an Irish revolutionary in the film Odd Man Out two years earlier) to a refugee from the former Yugoslavia — but both films turn on the marvelous contrast between Lucia’s (forced) walk on the wild side and her sturdy suburban values, and in particular the household members that hem her in so much Donnelly even comments, “These people really have you trapped, don’t they?” The acting is excellent throughout, with Bennett ironically appearing as the ordinary person trapped in the noir underworld just a few years after making The Woman in the Window (1945) and Scarlet Street (1946), in which she was the femme fatale and Edward G. Robinson the milquetoast she was leading to destruction. But what makes The Reckless Moment special is Ophuls’ direction, particularly his use of the moving camera — it seems to have been Ophuls’ style never to cut until he absolutely had to, but instead to take us from place to place on a camera dolly, and according to an poster James Mason said about the film that at one point Ophuls wanted to have two sets fully lit simultaneously so he could dolly from one to the other. Columbia president Harry Cohn said no, and, according to Mason, “Ophuls could not smile anymore from this day.”

The Reckless Moment dramatizes, just as vividly as The Deep End did, the contrast between the heroine’s safe suburban existence and the noir underworld in which she is plunged; and contrary to what’s been written about the film, there really isn’t the hint of a romantic interest between Lucia and Donnelly; instead, as in The Deep End, what seems to change Donnelly’s moral status and lead him to sympathize with the woman he’s trying to blackmail is his attraction towards her “normal” suburban lifestyle. Also, though the film is not explicitly Gay (as its remake is — under the Production Code, of course, it couldn’t have been), there’s an interesting intimation of a homoerotic relationship between Donnelly and Nagle (“You have a family, I have Nagle,” he tells Lucia at one point), anticipating the role Mason would play 10 years later in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as the rich, decadent Bisexual who’s clearly keeping Eva Marie Saint as a girlfriend and Martin Landau as a boyfriend. (In North by Northwest, when Landau’s character tries to warn Mason’s — accurately — that Saint’s character has betrayed him to the government, Mason whines, “Leonard! I do believe you’re jealous!”) Just as Joan Bennett had gone from playing the femme fatale who draws the ordinary person into the noir world to playing the ordinary person who gets drawn into it and has to cope with its weirdly inverted values, so James Mason would go from the innocent young man drawn into both a criminal and a homosexual relationship with a decadent older partner to playing the decadent older partner pulling the same sort of thing with both genders in North by Northwest.