Does James Mason look pretty upset in the above publicity still? He should! He’s in love with Lucia (Joan Bennett), the housewife he is blackmailing. You see, it’s this whole tricky affair where Lucia’s daughter was up to no good with a man who accidentally stumbled, fell, and impaled himself on an anchor (don’t they all?) one dark night. Lucia quickly covers up the death both from her daughter and from the authorities, but little did she realize the dead man’s debts would bring a charming Irish loan-shark gangster down to her cozy L.A. suburban beach house to blackmail her. After seeing so many fin de siècle films by Max Ophüls it was a welcome relief to catch his modern Hollywood films like The Reckless Moment (1949), which is a little bit of noir, a little bit of melodrama, shades of Douglas Sirk and Fritz Lang’s 1950s films, but also pure Ophüls—love that isn’t meant to last, the melancholy of romantic longing. Indeed, the main love of the film, that between Lucia and her G.I. husband, is absent, he away on business and her using brief public phone calls and scribbled letters to lament the stifling atmosphere of her house, where she takes care of an energetic, somewhat bratty young boy, the may-soon-become-slattern daughter, and her father-in-law. (Not to mention a great character in the African American maid, who Ophüls subtly shows seeing and almost understanding all the nefarious deeds Lucia is in the midst of.) Removed at a distance and muted through day-to-day domestic drudgery, Lucia’s first love seems a dim, unreal hope on the horizon.
The film’s other love, that of Mason for Bennett, is unrequited its own way. Between them, unlike the married couple, proximity is possible, if not a requisite for the blackmailing. It is this closeness their relationship affords that quickly allows Mason to fall for Bennett’s stalwart self-possession and reserved, dignified beauty. But Mason’s growing kindnesses, and the actor’s bending, willing charm does little to ease the strain the blackmailer is putting on Lucia’s already stress-fractured household. And that’s what the film remarkable emphasizes—strain. This is not a hysterical melodrama, Bennett mad with fear and guilt over pseudo-murder and blackmail; instead, Mason’s blackmailer is just one weight too many of a heavy burden, which Lucia is nevertheless able to carry through with amazing strength and determination. In a particularly intriguingly staged scene—Mason and Bennett combatively talking in his car while a ferry takes them across a river, police boats silently circling the area—one is struck by just how calm Lucia is, how Bennett makes her, as a domestic housekeeper totally contained by this lifestyle, focused on the details of when she has to pay by and how much, rather than becoming crazed or weepy at the pressure. Like with Caught (1949) before it, Ophüls grants his characters an adult seriousness, the ability to consider themselves and their situation, which results in a far more mature melodrama, one very much thought out in emotional, psychological, and human terms, but never indulging in or exhibiting these angles as some wry explanation to it all. (Caught, in contrast,briefly missteps with a scene between the megalomaniacal millionaire and his psychologist who rationally explains his neurosis.)
It is also a pleasure to see Ophüls’ touches in a modern scenario: the wind whipping at Bennet’s scarf and her suburban-chic horn-rimmed sunglasses as she huffs and puffs to move the dead man’s corpse into her getaway boat. Or the way the camera, even in its truncated movements (as they all are, sadly, in Ophüls’ American work), weaves in and out and around Bennett’s house, catching its segmentation but also its visibility, where there are many separate rooms all easily closed off with their own doors and shutters, yet one can always see or hear into all other rooms from any point in the house. Swinging overhead lamps, shadowy trees—the fear and danger of comfortable spaces is where the noir angle comes in, binding with Lucia’s twin domestic fears, that her family will be torn about by the murder scandal, or, more subtly and even worse, that she will be torn from her absent husband by the increasingly generous and kind James Mason. In his final American film Max Ophüls’ has clearly found a way to deeply stylize typical Hollywood material and wrest real empathy out of it, a depth to emotions and lives that is so rare in this era. Just see how a wounded Mason tenderly holds onto Bennett’s hand at the finale, or their rushed, huddled conversation at a bus depot as Bennett tries to convince her blackmailer that she is the murderer. The plot as a contrivance falls away and what builds up instead is the plot as bringing these characters to life, moving them both in the physical sense and the emotional, and letting them glimpse untold happiness and endless melancholy.