saving faceby Douglas Messerli
Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent, Henry Garson, and Robert Soderberg (screenplay, based on a story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding), Max Ophüls (director) The Reckless Moment / 1949
Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment, a film I watched on television’s TCM the other afternoon, begins quickly, immediately establishing the upper middle-class suburban housewife’s, Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), worries about her daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks), who is seeing an older man. Lucia’s husband is, inexplicably, away in Berlin, and she is having some difficulties in controlling her children, although her young son seems ordinary enough in his affection for all things mechanical. And although the father-in-law also lives in their comfy house, it is her maid who is Lucia’s biggest support.
It does not take the daughter long, moreover, to realize that her lover, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), whom she clandestinely meets in the family’s boathouse, is not truly interested in her as much as he is in her money and shapely body, and in anger, she lashes out with a flashlight, hitting him over the head several times, before rushing back into the arms of her mother. The lover, surviving the attack, rises and dizzily walks toward to the door of the boathouse, but stumbles once outside, falling through a wooden railing to his death. There Lucia finds him, and, presuming that Bea has killed him, drags the body to their boat, attaching him to the anchor before taking the boat out to sea. Those “reckless moments” are the central events as the rest of this noir-like film (evocatively photographed by Burnett Guffey) focuses less on action than on the consequences of those “moments.”*
When the body is later found, Lucia and Bea fear arrestment, but the mother, a bit like Mildred Pierce, is determined to protect her daughter, even if it means her own arrestment. Forget everything, “You are never to speak of it again,” she commands.
Out-of-the-blue, a petty thug, Martin Donnelly (James Mason), visits them, sent by his loan-shark boss Nagel (Roy Roberts), to bribe her with the letters the daughter has written to the dead man. Despite the fact that the family is apparently well-off, Joan has difficulty in raising the required $5,000; even her pawned jewelry brings in only $800.00. In trying to buy more time, she meets again with Donnelly, he increasingly responding to her plight and admiring her fortitude and gentle pride she displays in trying to protect her loved ones.
Without preaching, however, Ophüls makes it quite clear that her actions are not just motivated by Lucia’s attempts to save her children, but arise out of a determination to maintain the quality and values of her life, to remain in the bounds of the somewhat smug pretensions of her suburban world of Balboa. Indeed, travels into the city—visits to nearby Los Angeles, required by Lucia’s money-raising attempts—are suspicious to the family, as if in entering another domain, she has temporarily abandoned her and their paradise. Even the maid is worried for her employer, and when Donnelly shows up once more at the house, the maid asks if she might join Lucia in the conversation, an offer Lucia refuses, denying even her servant’s protection.
Donnelly attempts to convince her that she must immediately hand over the money, insisting that not only does Nagel exist, but he is dangerous, but Lucia confesses her failures at being able to even receive a loan—perhaps a kind of subversive feminist statement, since we are sure that were Lucia’s missing husband to apply for a loan, he would most likely easily be granted it. By this time, however, the outsider to her world, Donnelly, has fallen in love with her, and attempts to help her in her plight. Nagel, however, shows up, and is determined to close the deal or kill his victim.
The almost inevitable events, Donnelly sacrificing his life by killing Nagle, frees Lucia to escape back into the arms of her bourgeois society, without, evidently, even so much as a twinge of moral guilt. As she has commanded her daughter to do, she will, apparently, put it out of her mind, or recall it, from time to time, as a bad dream. In comparison, the dashing “outsider” Donnelly has behaved with an almost existentialist sense of moral virtue that makes Lucia’s gentle protectiveness seem sterile and meaningless. Indeed, it now hardly matters at all that her “missing” husband returns home. She, her children, and, most importantly, her manner of life have been protected to a return to “normalcy.” Most importantly, she has “saved face”—an issue that would again arise in the director’s major last films, The Earrings of Madame de….and Lola Montès.
Early critics, such as Bosley Crowther, clearly missed the point, describing the film as presenting a “callous attitude,” wherein the heroine “gets away with folly.” But, in fact, Ophüls’ masterful film is an understated condemnation of the post-War American domestic values that will be reiterated throughout the next decade by filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk. *
Los Angeles, July 11, 2013
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (July 2013).
*I might just mention that in my standard guides, I’ve never before encountered such controversy as to what actually happens in this film. One might even ask what movie these different reviewers witnessed? The usually commendable Time Out Film Guide suggests that the daughter “accidentally killed” the villain boyfriend Ted Darby, perhaps the closest, if not exactly accurate version, of the actual film events. The Turner Classic Movies Guide describes the daughter as “murderous.” Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide of 1995 describes the mother, Joan Bennett, as the murderer, with which Leslie Halliwell’s earlier Film Guide concurs, summarizing the events as “a women accidentally kills her daughter’s would-be seducer.” The most confused statement appears in the usually authoritative World Film Directors, volume 1, which gets it all mixed-up: “Joan Bennett plays Lucia Harper, innocently involved in murder and threatened by blackmail, and Geraldine Brooks is her mother, who averts disaster by winning over the blackmailer.” I thought Joan Bennett was the mother, Geraldine Brooks, her daughter! We all make mistakes, I certainly have in my own critical essays, but truly everyone seems to have their own viewpoint on this film! I’ll stick with my own interpretation. I think it’s important that these women were both outwardly innocent of the murder, but highly involved in its cover-up nonetheless. They are guilty despite their ability to wash their hands of the actual murder. And that is just Ophüls’ point. His film shares a great deal with Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, wherein nearly everyone has been party to Harry’s death—without being the cause!
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