#18 — The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949)
Energized as I might be to see obvious artistry that endures throughout the years when I survey old films, I don’t view the material in a void. As best as I can, I contextualize the work agains the time in which it was released. Often that’s to the favor of a film, with so much that now seems mundane instead looking revolutionary when stripping away the intervening years that may have transformed the novel into a trope. I suppose my mental maneuvering around The Reckless Moment has a similar effect of elevating its stature, though my prevailing conclusion inspired by the film is far more dire. When I watch this film noir threaded with an especially bleak cynicism, I mainly think about how wholly understandable it is that Hollywood didn’t have much interest in seeing what else German director Max Ophüls could do after he finished this project, no matter how masterful I may personally find it to be. Even before the film lost over a half-million dollars for it’s studio (no small sum considering its budget didn’t even reach seven digits), surely the powers that been could see Ophüls had a sensibility that was doomed to never connect with U.S. audiences.
Based on a 1947 novel entitled The Blank Wall, written by Elizabeth Saxnay Holding, the film follows Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), an unassuming housewife who goes to great lengths to protect her daughter (Geraldine Brooks), believing that blooming young woman has killed the male suitor (Shepperd Strudwick) in whom she’s grown disinterested. In its simplest reading, the film offers one of those stories that shows how quickly average people can in well over their heads when they venture into more dastardly doings, the theme that Alfred Hitchcock took to with such vigor. When coupled with a consideration of the desperate lengths a parent will go to protect their child, even to the point of forgiving and ignoring perceived malevolence, that theme picks up even more thorny possibilities. The film grows yet more complication when Lucia stumbles into interactions with a local gangster (James Mason, in one of his earlier roles), whose own motivations curl around like singed parchment as the story progresses.
Hitchcock and other directors who ventured toward these nastier manifestations of human instinct — and there were certainly plenty of filmmakers grappling with similar enough material during the film noir heyday of the nineteen-forties — often softened the blow with just enough winking acknowledgement that this is all really just entertainment, folks. It’s more complicated with Ophüls. While the film is made with a persistence visual elegance and creativity that keeps reinforcing it as a prime act of cinema, Ophüls instill the whole thing with a level of bleak menace and offhand cosmic cruelty that prevents it from ever becoming merely comfortable. It’s not meant to coddle the audience nor make them feel that justice, one way or another, always prevails. It is uncompromising and fiercely truthful. Those qualities may not have made his work palatable to his Hollywood employers, but it has absolutely helped it endure.