Thursday, 11 January 2007

The Reckless Moment (1949) - Max Ophüls



This film, based on a short story by Elisabeth Holding depicting American values and patriotism could have been a very different product indeed. Columbia wanted to make the picture with Walter Wanger emerging early as a producer, next came the casting of James Mason and Joan Bennett (cast against type in this film), but as to who would direct the film - this was a question ultimately of money: the studio wanted a European director with Renoir being recomended by both Wanger and Mason but he was asking $50,000; Max Ophüls came relatively cheap then at the $25,000 he cost the studio.

The new young writing team of Mel Dinelli and Robert Kent adapted the screenplay into a fantastic story of "maternal overdrive". Bea (Geraldine Brooks) dates an art dealer against her mother's (Joan Bennett) wishes leading to a falling out; the 'reckless moment' of the title comes during one of these resulting arguments when Bea strikes Ted (Shepperd Strudwick) over the head leading him to stumble and fall to his death on an anchor. With maternity kicking into overdrive and no amount of stress due to the dissaray this throws her life into, Bea's mum Lucia (Bennett) firstly gets rid of the body and anchor before having to deal with a crafty blackmailer in the form of James Mason. The opportunity for blackmail arises because Mason has letter Bea wrote to Ted that would make her a suspect in the subsequent police investigation, an investigation which throughout the film gradually gets closer and closer to Lucia's family. Then, to top things off as Mason has a change of heart his partner (a real bad egg) insists on the money being paid immediately leading to a final violent boathouse showdown between James Mason and Roy Roberts.

Ophüls shows his usual virtuosity in terms of camera movement and framing of characters throughout the film, whilst Burnett Guffey's wonderful noir cinematography captures each crisp monochromatic image as brilliantly as the next. The drama and tension are consistently notched up by the sublimely orchestrated score from Hans Salter whose work in the film, although sometimes seeming generic of the period, is a vital ingredient in the film's effectiveness and power. As far as the acting is concerned it is Mason's film, it is his transcendence from archetypical bad guy to the passionate hero that makes this work so intriguing, whilst Bennett's powerhouse performance of stident defiance and almost masculin matriarchy provides the solid backbone to this solid drama.

This is not to say the film is by any means a perfect conception. Indeed, there are many elements that could be improved - not least the secondary and sometimes superfluous characters that often come across as more superfluous fodder than real people. Gene Havlick's editing is crisp, although slightly uninspired for my tastes and thus an easily overlooked aspect of the filmmaking process. Overall however, this underseen last American film from Ophüls is solid enough to be worthy viewing for fans of classic studio cinema fitting snugly into the director's distinctive [and highly influential] cinematic oevre. 8/10

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