The Reckless Moment


You live in a small close-knit community where everyone knows you and yours. Your family is all around, both depending on you and making endless demands on your time. You are also the victim of a blackmailer. What do you do and who do you turn to? That’s the problem at the centre of the 1949 film noir thriller from Max Ophuls, The Reckless Moment.

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) lives in a small California town. She is married with two teenage children, has a housekeeper and a large comfortable home. On the surface everything appears idyllic, but chaos is looming. The film opens with Lucia driving to Los Angeles to meet a man called Ted Darby. Darby (Sheppard Strudwick) has been dating the daughter of the family and Lucia means to put an end to it. She fails to do so and Darby comes secretly to the house later that night. The daughter (Geraldine Brooks) meets him in the adjacent boathouse and, after a quarrel, Darby stumbles off the landing to skewer himself on an anchor below. Lucia discovers the body the next morning and, with her husband traveling on business in Europe and she wanting to protect her daughter, decides to dump the corpse and cover everything up. It looks like she might pull it off until Martin Donnelly (James Mason) turns up with some compromising letters and proposes blackmail.


Joan Bennett will be familiar to any fan of noir due to her work with Fritz Lang on a number of pictures, most notably Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. There’s no femme fatale style vamping here though, instead she’s the competent, protective mother driven to near despair as the situation spins out of her control. Her measured underplaying is one of the factors which keeps the movie rooted in noir territory and saves it from straying into melodrama. The other factor is James Mason. Two years earlier Mason had given a blinding performance in Carol Reed’s beautiful and masterful Odd Man Out. Here he’s playing another doomed Irishman, albeit one with more dubious motives. He’s very believable in the role and there’s nothing that seems phony as we witness his self-doubts transform him.

The film is well directed by Ophuls and excellently photographed by Burnett Guffey. The location work adds to the realism and the interiors of the big open-plan house seem, paradoxically, to heighten the sense of domestic claustrophobia. It’s almost impossible to hold a private conversation anywhere as family members bustle in and out, cheerfully oblivious to the treachery that threatens them all.

The movie is available in R2 from Second Sight and it’s a great looking, clean transfer. The disc also has decent enough extras with a commentary, a good introduction and a stills gallery. Definitely recommended.

10 thoughts on “The Reckless Moment

  1. Hi Colin,

    Thanks to the recent link from Sergio, I “caught up” with your comments on “The Reckless Moment”.

    Although you did not mention it, you may be aware that Joint Directors, Producers, Writers and participating “bit” Actors, Scott Mcgehee and David Siegel ,”re-visited” Elisabeth Sanscay Holdings’ “Ladies Home Journal” story, “The Blank Wall”. The resultant film was entitled “The Deep End” (2001).

    Because my wife and I were impressed with the 1949 film, we viewed the 2001 effort. To appeal to modern audiences certain controversial changes were made and it was marketed as a “Thriller” rather than as a “Film Noir”.

    The film itself, in our opinion, was most noteworthy for the performance of Tilda Swinton who was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Unfortunately, her performance in the “Joan Bennett” role was not successful.

    In my opinion few “re-makes” succeed in capturing the ” feel” of the original, (e.g. “Psycho”).


    • Thanks Rod. I’ve never seen the remake myself.

      I’ve been disappointed by the results of a lot of remakes too. Sometimes they work for me if they bring something new and interesting to the table but too many just comes across as pale imitations. I agree with you that few remakes get the “feel” of the original – I think that’s a near impossible task.


  2. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Reckless Moment” along with Max Ophüls’ other 1949 American film “Caught” (also starring James Mason). Great work by Mason, Bennett, and Shepperd Strudwick and Ophüls’ direction was superb. I really appreciated the on-location shots of Balboa Island which is portrayed as a laid-back coastal town. It’s hardly sleepy today — it is one of the highest real estate markets in the U.S. and it has a population density that’s greater than San Francisco.

    Another “metamorphosis” related to the film involves Joan Bennett’s transformation from a seductress in “Woman in the Window”, Scarlett Street, and “The Macomber Affair” to a matronly type in just a few years. She would continue playing middle-aged mothers in “Father of the Bride” (1950) and “Father’s Little Dividend” (1951). It’s to her credit that she was willing to move from vamp to nurturer — she was only 39 in “The Reckless Moment”. Similarly, Betty Field would move from playing Daisy Buchanan in the 1949 version of “The Great Gatsby” to Kim Novak’s mother in “Picnic” (1955).

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    • Yes, Bennett did transition to “older” roles quite fast. I read a comment elsewhere recently that claimed her career suffered as a result of the incident which led to her husband Walter Wanger doing jail time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Seen it once years ago on a crappy vhs. I see it is up on You-Tube in a sharp looking print. Hopefully I can get to it this week. Like your review.


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