The Reckless Moment (1949)

reckless5Joan Bennett plays a mother doing whatever it takes to protect her family.

After Laura and I did our joint review of Bigger Than Life (1956), I remembered she had recently and highly recommended to me another James Mason film, The Reckless Moment (1949). Here he gives another fine performance as a likable criminal who enters Joan Bennett’s life to blackmail her with her daughter’s love letters to a murdered art dealer. Joan wants to avoid the scandal of the love letters going public, but she’s more afraid that her and her daughter’s involvement in the man’s murder will become known. The day before, Bennett went into L.A. and ordered the much older and very shifty dealer (Shepperd Strudwick) to stay away from her seventeen-year-old (Geraldine Brooks). He would have, if Bennett paid him off, and when he comes to see Brooks that same evening, it dawns on her that he’s every bit as rotten as mother said. Fighting off Strudwick’s aggressive advances, Brooks hits him hard on the head and early the next morning Bennett finds him dead on the beach. Bennett puts his body in a motorboat, drops the anchor (the murder weapon) in one place, and his body in a swamp, returning home to continue with Christmas preparations.


With her husband away on business travels through the holidays, Bennett thought it was tough just being alone to deal with the stress of a daughter dating the wrong man. She has no idea what’s still to come, as the town is abuzz with the murder, as Mason demands of her an impossible amount of money to raise without her husband’s knowledge, and as the investigation keeps circling closer to her home. The growing snowball of secrets are hard to keep from the close family with set routines and no experience seeing mom go on unexpected trips to L.A., sitting in a strange man’s car, not eating all day because of “headaches,” or generally acting suspicious. As she explains to Mason, things are different and it’s not easy to do shady things when “family surrounds you.” But though some viewers will read this as the home being her prison, she’s not complaining; she sees it as her job in this stage of life and she’s good at it. She wants order, civility, morals and comfort in the home she keeps, and preserving those things is what drives her to warn Strudwick away, to move the murder as far from home as possible, then do whatever it takes to get rid of the the blackmailers and the police, including confessing to the murder. “There’s nothing I won’t do to stop it,” she says to Strudwick when she meets him, summing up her mama bear approach to defending her domain.


This is one of the best Joan Bennett performances I’ve seen so far. She’s such a strong, determined, single minded, chain-smoking force with nerves of steel until the danger is finally over. There are several great scenes where you think she’s going to crack as makes her way down the winding steps and around corners or looks through cabinets, but she always composes herself before walking into anyone’s sight. Mason tells her she’s a good mother and her kids are lucky to have her. “Everyone has a mother like me,” she replies.

As Mason warms to Bennett’s domestic devotion and traditional values (even then, Brooks is calling her old-fashioned), he starts helping her, gives up his half of the blackmail money and tries to protect her from the evil head of the crime ring (Roy Roberts). By the time it comes down to life and death, Mason has been changed by Bennett and loves her. He decides that taking the burden of her problems will be the one good thing he does to redeem his life and his own good mother’s misplaced faith in him. It’s ironic that the criminal Mason is the one who most appreciates Bennett’s character, her sacrifices and her value, since nobody in her family will ever know the trouble and pain she went through to keep them safe.


The Reckless Moment is a rich and fascinating melodrama that director Max Ophuls keeps from being syrupy, and infuses with the look of noir, through liberal use of shadows and creatively angled shots, and little things like hanging lamps swinging in the night wind. When Bennett is dragging the body down to the boat (think how tough that is) and cruising to find a dump site, there is no music, which makes the deserted beach more realistic, the noise of the boat engine more dangerous and her furtive glances in all directions more tense and effective. Also adding suspense are things presented as potentially huge snags; a broken flashlight, a grocery list missing from Bennett’s pocket, cigarettes bought by Mason and found by the maid (Frances E. Williams) in the shopping bag, a phone call to Lake Tahoe that shouldn’t be made from the house, an almost-forgotten pawn shop ticket. Not all of these things are significant as clues or even mentioned again, but their presence and the expert way they’re included is enough to create the needed anxiety for Bennett and for the viewer. It’s the piling on, the multiplication of things she has to worry about and cover up, things threatening to destroy her home. The menace is already creeping inside, causing more shadows and darkness and foreboding during what should be a festive, carefree season. The Reckless Moment is an excellent movie with much to notice, absorb and think about, from the acting to the visuals to the steady, understated presentation of the high drama.



16 thoughts on “The Reckless Moment (1949)”

  1. I’m really delighted you enjoyed this so much — I thought you would! It’s such a richly detailed movie. I love the depiction of the family’s Balboa Island lifestyle; the house seemed very “lived in,” and I always remember her telling her son to “Take one dollar, not two” for the movies. With four kids scrounging for money over the years I could hear myself in that line! LOL.

    Wonderful review!

    Best wishes,

    1. That’s right, little details like that make their life so realistic, just like the mistakes she worries about that make the danger feel so real. I enjoyed the noirish look and maybe most of all I liked the melodrama being so toned down, it brought a really interesting, tense, unpredictable feel to the story. Super acting. Good one and glad I checked it out. Thanks so much!

      1. Your post inspired me, I spent way too much time today making a Joan Bennett screensaver. Just so you know. LOL.

        Best wishes,

  2. This is a great film. Like Bigger Than Life. Ophuls was such a wonderful film-maker. His reputation deserves to be bigger. Caught is another wonderful noir melodrama from Ophuls, also with the marvellous James Mason.

    Thanks for the review. I love it that you revive these (almost) forgotten classics.

    1. Thanks, I love looking at these classics, they don’t deserve to be forgotten. I have not seen CAUGHT yet so I’ll have to get to that, apparently Jean Renoir was supposed to do this but his asking price was double Ophuls so he got it.

  3. A terrific movie, in my opinion, with great work by Bennett and Mason (as in Odd Man Out giving us another of his doomed Irishmen), and the direction by Ophuls is really quite beautiful.

    1. Yes it is very nice visually, and like I say I enjoyed the noir-melodrama mix, the crime threatening the domestic, and Mason’s criminal with a good heart. Lots to like here.

  4. A great writeup of a movie that I like a lot. The remake, The Deep End (2001), with Tilda Swinton, is well worth a watch, too. They’re both based on an excellent thriller, The Blank Wall (1947), by one of my fave novelists of that era, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.

    1. I just learned about that Swinton remake yesterday when I was reading up on this, so I am very interested in seeing it now. I like that you come and bring your knowledge of the books/stories because mine is limited and always interested in more info like that. I was just saying the other day that Hollywood would do well to mine fiction like they used to, there are so many books out there, old and new, that would make fantastic films.

  5. Really enjoyed your review of this great unsung Ophüls classic, and “CAUGHT” is definitely worth a look. And while you’re at it, check out Ophüls putting ANOTHER damsel in distress in the great opulent drama: “The Earrings of Madame de…”. Bennett, taut and under duress, was excellent. Mason, poignant with desire for a woman like Bennett, for a mother like Bennett, for a lifestyle like Bennett’s. Remember the scene in the car, as you wrote about: “Everybody has a Mother”? Notice Mason’s face. Clearly he did NOT have a mother or someone who cared for him. His silence was deafening.

    But let me give a shout out to another person in the film…Frances E. Williams, the family maid. I stress ‘family’ in that description. I LOVE Ophüls for making Williams a PART of that family. We always see HER looking out for or being concerned about Bennett’s well-being. It doesn’t go unnoticed by her. AND check out who tells Bennett she’ll go along with her in the car at a pivotal moment of the movie…Williams. I won’t give anything away and I’m hopped up on this b’cuz I just wrote about the film on my own blog, but I will always love Ophüls for letting Williams be a part of the family; for letting her be Human in the movies.

    1. So true about Williams, even before they go off in the car and Williams is so helpful in that part, how many times through the ordeal does she have a concerned glance, keeps an eye on Bennett without being too obvious, and offers to go out to the boathouse with her after warning her about that “nasty man” waiting there. Loved that depiction of a real, considerate and important character to the family, as you said. She knows something big is up right from the start. I’ll be dropping by to see your thoughts on this movie, and guess what, I have both CAUGHT and EARRINGS here, both new to me, so I will be watching them, thanks for that and for stopping by!

  6. “That nasty man…” L0L! You’re so right. Thanx so much for dropping by and reading my thoughts. I’m looking forward to reading what you think about Ophüls’ other films. I just love them. Thanx again.

    1. you bet, part of what makes movies so fun, is discovering what other viewers see and what speaks to them, it’s always enlightening!

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