Is The Reckless Moment a noir or a melodrama? I'll vote for both. Whatever it is, the film is a superb drama of, as one person has said, "maternal overdrive." And if the plot sounds familiar, think of that wonderful movie, The Deep End starring Tilda Swinton from 2001. The Deep End is a remake of The Reckless Moment.
Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) is an upper-class wife and mother with a young, teen-age son and a 17-year-old daughter. Lucia's husband is away. The family lives in a fine ocean-front home in "the lovely community of Balboa," fifty miles south of Los Angeles. Bea Harper is just old enough to get herself in trouble with men and just young enough not to want to listen to her mother. The older man she's been seeing is a sleazy, charming opportunist. When Lucia realizes what's going on, she warns the man away...and soon she finds him dead at their boat house. She thinks her daughter was responsible. With little hesitation, Lucia Harper does what she thinks she must to protect her daughter and her family. She drags the body into a small boat and dumps it on the far side of the ocean inlet. When the body is eventually discovered, murder is suspected. And then Lucia is visited by a dark Irishman, Martin Donnelly (James Mason). He has letters written by her daughter to the man, letters which could be interpreted in a compromising way if they were turned over to the police or to the press. The price for silence? Thousands of dollars which Lucia can find no way to raise. In a subtle, slow rearrangement of feelings, Donnelly, who is a disreputable man hardened to pleadings, finds himself sympathetic to Lucia's determination to protect her family. Donnelly's partner, however, is made of harder and more cynical stuff. The conclusion takes place in the darkened boathouse and then in an act of sacrifice that may have you wondering about what you would have done.
I think this is at least a semi-noir because of the desperate fix Lucia Harper finds herself in. The more she tries to protect her daughter and the more she tries to raise the money the blackmailers want, it seems the more the consequences of her actions close in around her. The flip side of that noir coin is the role and personality of Martin Donnelly. Ever so slowly we can see him drawn to Lucia Harper. But he's drawn not simply to her as a person as he is to what she represents...love and determination, a stable family, a fierceness to protect those she loves. If Lucia Harper may be doomed by circumstances she wants to control but can't, Martin Donnelly may be doomed by feelings he never expected to have and for which there can be no happy ending.
The Reckless Moment starts out as Joan Bennett's movie. In my view she remains one of the least appreciated of Hollywood actresses. She played heartless women so effectively (Scarlet Street, for instance) that her versatility was obscured. Yet she could match Myrna Loy in good-natured irony and desirability, and was equally good at portraying lovingly exasperated mothers. She was shrewd, as well, being quite willing to play mothers of grown children as she moved into early middle-age. The Reckless Moment, however, becomes a two-person movie as soon as James Mason appears at Lucia's home bearing those letters. Mason was one of the great film actors. With a face that could stay calm but imply all sorts of feelings, some unpleasant and nearly all conflicted, just below the skin, with an incomparable voice and with great acting technique, Mason could turn dross into gold. Matched with Bennett, the two of them perform a kind of dance where each needs the other to do well.
How does The Deep End compare to The Reckless Moment? I think they are both first-rate movies. The Reckless Moment was Max Ophuls last American movie before he returned to Europe. It's available on a Region Two DVD from Second Sight in a fine black-and-white transfer. Special features include an introduction by Todd Haynes and a commentary by Lutz Bacher, credited as the author of Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios.