Joan 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.