Joan Bennett plays the incredibly taut mother who must deal with blackmail…and a dead body.
It’s interesting to see the daughter ( played by Geraldine Brooks ) fall apart at the seams as Bennett tries to keep it all together. Funny to see Brooks talk to Bennett about how old- fashioned she is in not understanding her thing for this older man, ( she wouldn’t? ) while I think about Bennett in the movies back in her heyday. Please indulge me for a moment:
Though she keeps her house running like a well-oiled machine as Ophüls shows us with his tracking shots of her, you can also see how restricted her life is every time she leaves her family’s sight. She’s questioned, pulled and prodded at every turn by her family. She’s constantly bzzzzing around like a bee. Poor lady, couldn’t get access to anything on her own b’cuz being married back then meant your husband had financial control over everything. Oppressive? Not really, but she is in a gilded cage. A boxy cage. The house was such a maze and series of boxes; a manifestation of the box Bennett’s character finds herself in.
She may not be able to get a loan under her own name and has to pawn jewelry for cash, but for a woman who is being blackmailed, Ben-nett comes off a bit ballsy, striding into a low rent joint making her own demands, and dealing with Mason. If she can’t do something, she says it, and not meekly either. She deals with all of this on her terms. I have to say I was more astounded by her lack of control over her own finances and the judgement from bankers than I was in her having to deal with blackmailers. ( Girls be smart… have your own money. )
You know, running into James Mason might have been the best thing that’s happened to Bennett. His task is to get her to pay blackmail money in return for incriminating letters her daughter wrote her dead ex-lover. Mason looks great, and does a touching job of walking that fine line between good and bad. Bennett’s husband is away on a long business trip, and the weight of the family is on her lonely shoulders. Mason becomes smitten with her, his reach exceeding his grasp; he knows he’s not in her league. She talks to him rather gruffly. Bennett and Mason do a great job of moving towards each other while not crossing any boundaries.
Methinks they’re both trapped in their place. Mason’s soft and tender with her. You might think I’m reaching here…but there’s something “Brief Encounter“-ish about their relation-ship; the hopelessness of their ever even being together ( in this case more for him than her. ) I like the moment when he goes with her on an errand in a pharmacy that mirrors domesticity as he carries her parcels out the drugstore. He admires her maternal concern. Bennett tells him “Everybody has a Mother.” He says nothing…which says everything.
Sybil, the maid, is so refreshing. She’s played by Frances E. Williams who appeared in 1947’s “Her Sister’s Secret“ ( Edgar G. Ulmer ) also as a maid, but as a treasured member of that family as well. ( Read Moira Finnie’s review of that movie here and my thoughts here. ) In “Reckless…” Ophüls allows her the humanity to be a real person. She seems to be the only member of the house who really sees Bennett…concerned for her needs… watching over her, ever hovering in the periphery. And Bennett treats her respectfully as a member of the family. Remember she scolds Brooks NOT to talk Sybil in that rude manner.
I must say my jaw dropped when Sybil takes the wheel of the car at a pivotal point in the movie. Whoa! …And Bennett’s not being “chauffeured” but sits in the front seat, side-by-side…as equals. And with her coat on, we can’t see Sybil’s maid uniform, so in my mind it made Sybil seem even more like a friend. A nice, and a bit shocking touch for an American film of the time. But then again, Ophüls ( and Ulmer ) are not American, which might explain their sensitivity and not following the racial rules and regulations of the time.
Ophüls carries us along on this journey against time ( blackmail money, police investigation ) and watching two people tentatively reach towards each other; developing feelings. There are two touching moments for me in this film. After a car accident, Mason tells her to leave him. He wants her out of trouble and danger, sacrificing himself for her. The other moment comes when Joan is sobbing in bed. You feel her deep loss. See this to know exactly what I mean.
Without spoiling anything, this is the last shot of the movie. Her grief ( guilt ) spills into the happiness of hearing from her husband again. The movie ends abruptly. What I mean by that is Ophüls pulls the band-aid off the wound quickly; he doesn’t allow her or us to wallow in her sadness too long because she still has a family to take care of. I’ve been developing a new appreciation for Joan Bennett myself and how she colors her performances into fine shades of gray. I love her bad in “Scarlet Street“ but that’s easy. I love femmes fatale in the movies. She played wives trapped in “The Macomber Affair“ and “The Woman on the Beach.“ But there’s her light touch in “Trade Winds“ and “Me and My Gal.“ And Bennett in the 1930’s, sort of virginal, nondescript. A friend told me to focus on Bennett in her next movie after “The Reckless Moment”: “Father of the Bride.” Whoa! It kind of makes the movie feel different when not focusing on Elizabeth Taylor. Loved Bennett’s gentle chiding of Tracy throughout. It’s 1950 and she’s still got it. “The Reckless Moment” has been re-made ( “The Deep End“ ) but I don’t think there’s any need to check it out when we have this classic, is there?
CineMoral: If you can’t get your daughter to clean up her room, at least you can clean up her murder. Just make sure she leaves nothing in writing. ( And that includes texts or FaceBook in today’s fast-paced 21st century world ). Kids!
( H OM E )