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The Reckless Moment
cast: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Frances E. Williams, Geraldine Brooks, and Roy Roberts

director: Max Ophüls

79 minutes (12) 1949
Second Sight DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
Blending drama with film noir, The Reckless Moment centres on the character of Lucia (Joan Bennett) - a respectable wife and mother whose life is thrown into disarray following the accidental death of her daughter's lowlife boyfriend. The film then follows her as she strives to protect her family, yet when Donnelly (James Mason) turns up on her doorstep with the intention of blackmailing her on behalf of his business partner, it's obvious that the matter is far from resolved.

The relative obscurity of this film may suggest that it's one of Ophüls' lesser efforts, yet there is no evidence of this when one watches it. However, while the quality of the film isn't in doubt, it's not particularly surprising that it hasn't garnered a huge amount of attention over the years, as it's a deliberately low-key piece and doesn't contain the directorial flourishes that are often found in Ophüls' work (breathtaking camerawork, lavish settings and costumes or lush musical arrangements, for example). Indeed, this is an altogether simpler affair and is none the worse for it, with the film serving to reflect the reality of Lucia's situation. So, while there are elements of film noir (namely chiaroscuro lighting and the use of shadows as a metaphor for imprisonment) the main focus is on the domestic theme: Lucia's husband is never seen and his presence is only felt via the occasional telephone call, meaning that Lucia becomes the focal character and the one who must take control of the situation. However, while she accepts this role unquestioningly and displays considerable strength and bravery, the viewer feels the burden that she is under and cannot help but sympathise: it is apparent that the family unit serves as Lucia's raison d'etre, yet one also senses that her constant role as lynchpin has prevented her from seeing anything of life beyond the domestic sphere.

Considering that it's predominantly a character piece, The Reckless Moment is a film that can only succeed if its key actors are believable and, thankfully, there are no problems in this respect: Bennett has the most demanding role and does a superb job of convincing as a woman who is desperate to protect her family yet must retain a respectable demeanour - throughout the film we get a sense of Lucia's internal struggle and so, when she finally gives way to her emotions, we become fully aware of how difficult it has been for her to keep up an act for so long. The film also wisely avoids a glamorised Hollywood version of reality in favour of a more authentic representation, and Bennett successfully leaves behind her vampy femme-fatale image (as showcased in 1945's Scarlet Street) in order to portray a more matriarchal figure. Mason also gives an endearing, understated performance as the blackmailer with a conscience, and allows Bennett to take centre stage. The chemistry between these two characters is one of the film's highlights, yet Ophüls wisely avoids over-egging this. Consequently, the relationship seems naturalistic rather than overwrought, and one gets a sense that the characters share a connection but that circumstances prevent them from taking this any further. This leads to a final scene between them that is infused with poignancy and a sense of 'what could have been.'

On a surface level, The Reckless Moment may not be the most impressive of Ophüls' films, yet its modest scale is beneficial in creating a sense of intimacy and realism. Bennett and Mason also play a large part in the film's success by providing compelling, sympathetic performances that give substance to what could have otherwise been a humdrum affair. For these reasons, the film has the ability to connect with modern audiences rather than simply coming across as a lost relic, and the overall impression is that of a little-seen gem that deserves to be discovered.

DVD extras: in addition to a gallery of production stills, the disc boasts a commentary track featuring Lutz Bacher (author of Max Ophuls In The Hollywood Studios). However, while it's in-depth and provides insight into the production process, it's also very scholarly in tone and so is best suited to academics and those with a deep interest in Ophüls and this film in particular. For the more casual viewer, Todd Haynes' knowledgeable and interesting introduction is much more accessible and does an excellent job of covering all the salient points within its 22-minute runtime.
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