sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-05-16 04:49 am
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You don't know how a family can surround you at times

I know nobody reads LJ on a Saturday morning, but I just got sucker-punched by a movie and I need to talk about it.

The movie in question: The Reckless Moment (1949), an apparently obscure and devastating feminist film noir starring Joan Bennett and James Mason. Directed by Max Ophüls from the novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall (1947). I started watching because I'd never heard of it. I recognized the source material during the title credits because [personal profile] skygiants had mentioned the book within the last year. I texted [ profile] derspatchel afterward: "Actually devastating. Like Brief Encounter (1945) with more irony and crime. I cried onto my movie cat. I might have to make tea." TCM's technically accurate but completely unhelpful one-line summary did not mention the patriarchy.

The film's relentless focus is Lucia Harper (Bennett), an all-American white suburban housewife whose life goes, like that of so many noir protagonists, from zero to nightmare overnight. It's the week before Christmas in Balboa, California; her engineer husband is overseas in Berlin, her son is a thirteen-year-old dynamo of self-absorption, her retired father-in-law is genially irresponsible, and her daughter is a seventeen-year-old art student carrying on a self-consciously adult affair with a middle-aged sleaze. The film opens cold with Lucia's trip to Los Angeles to confront her daughter's lover, insinuating "ex-art dealer" Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick, a lizard without a lounge), who agrees to stay away from the girl only if her mother makes it worth his while. Predictably, a scornful, mutinous Bea (Geraldine Brooks) does not believe the conversation when it's faithfully reported to her; she keeps her tryst with Darby in the family's boathouse that night, only to bash him over the head with a heavy kitchen flashlight and flee in loathing when he not only admits to the extortion scheme ("As a matter of fact, Bea, I am desperate for money") but pushes her to take advantage of it with him. Stunned and dizzy, he stumbles after her in the sea-wind darkness, collapses through the railing of the weathered boardwalk . . . Up early the next morning after a sleepless night, Lucia wanders down to the water and discovers none other than Darby, open-eyed, quite dead, impaled on the anchor where he fell. She saw the splintered lens of the flashlight last night. She's alone on the beach: it's just after dawn: she has split seconds to think. In her scarf and her sunglasses and her long light tweed coat, she wrestles the body into her family's motorboat—not forgetting the incriminating anchor—and dumps the one in a coastal swamp and the other in Newport Bay. And then she goes home, hoping that's the end of it.

It's not, of course. The next day there's a name she knows in the papers and a man waiting in the living room to see Mrs. Harper. His name is Martin Donnelly (Mason), a tall dark stranger in a black overcoat with a curiously apologetic expression and a tired Irish voice; he's a blackmailer and he wants five thousand dollars for all the love letters Bea wrote to Darby. (Conclusively proving sleazehood of Herculean proportions, Darby put them up as collateral for a loan. Accepting them was a courtesy while he was alive; now that he's the center of a murder investigation, they're really worth something.) Lucia protests honestly that she doesn't have that kind of money and can't raise it with her husband out of town, especially not over Christmas weekend. Martin insists, reluctantly but grimly. He has a partner, Nagle, who usually handles blackmail cases. She really doesn't want to be dealing with Nagle. She can have until Wednesday. She'll get the money somehow. She has her family to think of.

It is impossible to discuss anything that makes this film interesting without further spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

There's the heart of the story, Lucia and Martin and Lucia's family. Their relationship is unlike anything I have seen in a film noir. Lucia is unlike anyone I have seen in a film noir. A conventional housewife blackmailed with the exposure of her daughter's sexual entanglement in a murder case—though the blackmailer doesn't know it, with her own complicity in its cover-up—we should expect her to react with helplessness, horror, denial. But we saw her in that first scene, coolly taking Darby's measure by the openness of his contempt. She assesses and assimilates the reality of Martin Donnelly as briskly and unsentimentally as she has any of the other thankless responsibilities that structure her life; when her blackmailer insists on taking her for a drive so that they can talk freely, she has him drive her to the drugstore so that she can make a call she doesn't want her family to overhear, either.1 She is a fearsomely efficient person. She is always taking care of something. There is always something to take care of. Her family never gives her a moment to herself and we see the effects at once. Her conversation is frequently snappish, brusque, repressive; she reads in many ways as a woman who is deeply angry, but doesn't know what about or perhaps even that she is. She chain-smokes with such brittle fervor that Martin, rebuffed after expressing concern about her health, buys her a cigarette holder with a nicotine-reducing filter as an early Christmas present, a chiding, affectionate, utterly inappropriate gift. It's not that she doesn't love her family. However needy and hectoring, her children are her children and the prospect of one of them being an inadvertent murderer (a misconception that the film never clarifies for Lucia, interestingly) calls out a response so absolutely protective that she's prepared not only to tamper with evidence, but to confess falsely rather than see a distraught, guilt-sick Bea dragged into the papers and courts as a suspect. But she does not and cannot wear that kind of love lightly, and Martin is perhaps the first person in her life who notices. "Do you never get away from your family?" he asks as they drive, the question occasioned by passing the amusement park where her son worked last summer. Her answer is clear and deliberately dispassionate: "No." Later, she brushes off his sympathetic compliment—"She's lucky to have a mother like you"—with her usual irritable distraction: "Everyone has a mother like me," as if what she does is nothing special. The worst part is, she's right. She is doing exactly what is expected of a wife and mother in her place and time—all-nurturing, all-providing, all-sacrificing, and always looking good while she does it—and the fact that it's grinding her down like sandstone is neither here nor there. Except to Martin, asking with that same compassionate impropriety: "You are a prisoner, aren't you?" Answering that she doesn't feel like one is not the same as refuting the allegation. So the bond grows between them.

It's not that she wants to run away and become his moll instead of Tom Harper's wife. The film is actually scrupulous in its avoidance of the standard romantic alternatives. The quality Martin brings into her life is less familiar—honesty, maybe, or humanity. He doesn't talk to her like the little woman, or the accustomed source of chocolate cake and allowances, or an unconditional combination of punching bag and cleanup crew; he doesn't talk to her in terms of her family at all, except insofar as he recognizes the strength of her devotion to them: it is at once his hold over her and a source of deep and painful envy for him. With unnerving ease, they fall into a quasi-familial, quasi-romantic routine—he carries her shopping, lends her change for a call, gives her father racing tips and helps her son out with his fixer-upper jalopy; nobody questions seeing him around town because he is so clearly with Mrs. Harper, as if he were a kind of inevitable substitute husband in the absence of the real thing—but the attraction he holds for her is that he is outside of all these patterns, no matter what they look like. He's not her husband. He's not her lover. He's not a colleague of her husband's, or a friend of her father's, or the husband of one of her friends, or any of the roles in which a man relates to a woman in her world. He's the man who's blackmailing her and feels bad about it. Naturally, the attraction she holds for him is the reverse. She exemplifies a world he has never been part of, a charmed circle, domestic and fragile, and because she's half killing herself to keep it safe, he wants to protect it, too. All unasked, he becomes her knight in tarnished armor, battling his brutal partner,2 sacrificing himself like Sydney Carton to keep a life she loves beside her, taking onto himself the weight of a murder he didn't commit as well as the one he did in outright defense of her. He makes himself her scapegoat. He isn't trying to crack up the car when he flees with Nagle's body, so that it won't be found in the Harper boathouse any more than Darby's body was found on their beach,3 but a crash suits his purposes even better than a disappearance.

And so he dies like a champion for his lady, redeeming her honor with the last lie of his life, but was it his one good deed or just another self-delusion? The last scene finds Lucia for once alone—in the dark of her bedroom, face-down and weeping, exhausted, finally overwhelmed, and grieving. The phone rings; it's her husband, calling back from Berlin. She descends the stairs numbly; hears from the excited chatter of her children that the man in the car crash—Martin—confessed to Darby's murder before he died; takes the phone and begins in a light bright voice to tell her husband about the holiday. "We've mailed your Christmas packages. We're going to have a blue Christmas tree. Everything's fine except we miss you terribly. Yes, Tom . . ." American postwar domesticity, ladies and gents, the real thing, accept no substitutes, pure as the Saturday Evening Post. The shadows of the banisters close around Lucia's face like prison bars and she's still crying. That beloved security of family that Martin envied and gave his life to return to her safely is the trap she'll never get out of and she knows it now. Merry Christmas! Holy fuck.

I am amazed The Reckless Moment was made in 1949. It has the unhappiest ending of any film I've seen that year and I am counting The Heiress. My only mental fix-it is second-wave feminism.

1. Martin peering around counters at customers' packages, inspecting an artificial Christmas tree, at once amused and bemused by SoCal consumer culture is just one excellent component of a scene I really wish had the cinematographic vocabulary to analyze: when the operator interrupts Lucia's long-distance call to the aunt she hopes can give Bea a few days out of town on Lake Tahoe, a single elastic shot tracks Lucia all the way through the drugstore as she goes to borrow another five minutes' change from her blackmailer at the front door and then back to the phone booth again, Martin almost inadvertently trailing in her wake. It's a direct, wordless illustration of the already complex affinity between them, simultaneously deceptive and revealing. They're not the mutually trusting, normally stressed couple they seem, just another a pair of friends running pre-Christmas errands together, but give them a few days and they might be. It's a necessary component of the tragedy, after all.

2. Lucia doubts his existence for most of the film, suspecting instead a good-cop-bad-cop angle that Martin's trying to run on her, but Nagle is quite real, played by ubiquitous character actor Roy Roberts, and he doesn't have an ounce of romanticism in his dry pitiless smile. His relationship with Martin is a fascinating, just-sketched corner of the film—the way he uses the younger man's regrets and fragmentary but still functional sense of ethics to leash him to the underworld, co-opting out loud the self-destructive inner voice that continually reminds him that he's a petty crook and he'll never deserve anything better, so he'd better not try. "This lady's not in your class . . . You're not respectable, Martin. Relax."

3. A decision explicitly mirroring Lucia's initial impulsive move to protect her daughter by disposing of an inconvenient body, her eponymous "reckless moment": Martin's sacrifice is just as altruistic and just as poorly thought through.

So on the bright side, I've been reassured that good movies were made during the era of the Production Code.

On the down side, I'm still awake. This exorcism sponsored by my kind backers at Patreon.
skygiants: Audrey Hepburn peering around a corner disguised in giant sunglasses, from Charade (sneaky like hepburnninja)

[personal profile] skygiants 2015-05-16 12:42 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh man, I've got to see The Reckless Moment. I'm fascinated by what it sounds like the major differences are in this film from this book! I'm curious: is her housekeeper in the film at all?

(In the book, Lucia is just as trapped but -- it sounds like -- much less efficient; a lot of what others perceive as her efficiency is her black housekeeper quietly taking care of things for her; it's a thing that's very explicitly called out and she's terribly aware of. But I bet that's a relationship they'd have a hard time showing in the Code era.)

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kore: (Locri Pinax Persephone Opens Likon Mysti)

yet another "OT but" comment

[personal profile] kore 2015-05-18 01:34 am (UTC)(link)
Did you ever read this? If not you might like it (about Loki, Thor, and Odin)

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[identity profile] 2015-05-16 11:11 am (UTC)(link)
Sorry about your missing sleep, but it's nice to have a fresh blog before breakfast on a Saturday morning.

Totally unrelated - ages ago, you were in search of bookcases. I'm trying to find a home for a large one (7' tall, 30" wide).

[identity profile] 2015-05-16 06:47 pm (UTC)(link)
Unfinished pine. The bottom two shelves are about 13" each, as they were made for LPs. The others are shorter.

It turns out to be difficult to move an object that shape around corners or sometimes up stairs, due to its lack of bendability.

[identity profile] 2015-05-16 11:21 am (UTC)(link)
I watched the first few minutes of it, but decided to bail fast, not wanting hours of sleaze, which is what seemed like it might be leading up to. A movie-watching character flaw of mine, possibly.

Have you seen The Deep End (2001), which was inspired by this?

Deep End

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[identity profile] 2015-05-16 01:35 pm (UTC)(link)
This one doesn't sound like my kinda movie (I am a wimp) but I adored Night Nurse. Young Blondell and Stanwyck! Their banter! A young and really sinister Clark Gable!

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[identity profile] 2015-05-16 10:09 pm (UTC)(link)
I haven't watched it yet, but even my daughter was looking at the case and saying "ooh, I didn't know Clark Gable played villains!"

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ext_104661: (Default)

[identity profile] 2015-05-16 02:12 pm (UTC)(link)
I am reading this on a Saturday morning, and at least two others were before me :-)

Just yesterday, I was reading a perhaps-relevant article:

[identity profile] 2015-05-16 03:35 pm (UTC)(link)
WOW, this movie sounds amazing. Makes me wish I had TCM.

[identity profile] 2015-05-16 04:32 pm (UTC)(link)
Blog-reading occupies the same scheduling niche once occupied (I presume) by newspaper-reading: it is a thing one does while waking up, including on Saturdays. :-)

And wow, the movie. I don't think I want to see it, but it sounds amazing, especially for that era.

[identity profile] 2015-05-16 04:38 pm (UTC)(link)
Trickles of 1949 feminism sinking back into sand. I want to be out there with a shovel, clearing channels. Waiting for the second wave.

If Lucia can make it through the 50s, I see her rising with the tide. Neither smoking nor despair has taken her. I can hear her organizing marches in a gravelly voice.

spatch: (Coming Attractions)

[personal profile] spatch 2015-05-16 04:45 pm (UTC)(link)
Merry Christmas! Holy fuck.

Something tells me that would have been my reaction, too, had I been around to watch it with you.

From the people who brought you "I'm top of the food chain! Apex predator, me!"
ext_104661: (Default)

[identity profile] 2015-05-16 07:07 pm (UTC)(link)
So, a Christmas movie in the tradition of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil"?
gwynnega: (Default)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-05-16 05:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I saw this film a couple of years ago on TCM and liked it a lot. Mason and Bennett's performances in it are really riveting. After reading your review, I want to watch it again!

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[identity profile] 2015-05-16 06:26 pm (UTC)(link)
Beautiful. This is exactly the sort of review you're perfect at, and it looks amazing.;)

[identity profile] 2015-05-16 07:23 pm (UTC)(link)
I know nobody reads LJ on a Saturday morning,

is it saturday already?

TCM has started to run some anti Nazi movies this week, circa 1939, and I just forgot the titles.. sheesh..

[identity profile] 2015-05-17 01:19 am (UTC)(link)
Wow. I need to tell my friend [ profile] amaebi about this film.

Her conversation is frequently snappish, brusque, repressive; she reads in many ways as a woman who is deeply angry, but doesn't know what about or perhaps even that she is. --I know exactly what you mean; I think I've even experienced this state from time to time.

The worst part is, she's right. She is doing exactly what is expected of a wife and mother in her place and time—all-nurturing, all-providing, all-sacrificing, and always looking good while she does it—and the fact that it's grinding her down like sandstone is neither here nor there. --haaaarsh.

(btw loved your description of the sleasebag lover as a lizard without a lounge)

[identity profile] 2015-05-17 02:12 am (UTC)(link)
(btw loved your description of the sleasebag lover as a lizard without a lounge)

Me too!


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