Noir-Melodrama The Reckless Moment and the Best Unheralded Star Turn of the 40s

09/04/2009 11:50 AM |

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A preeminent noir-melodrama too often forgotten and only included in Film Forum’s Brit Noir series thanks to the ambivalent presence of James Mason, this Max Ophuls masterpiece is constructed from world-class plot glue (remade as the Tilda Swinton suspenser The Deep End over 50 years later), and its surprising tractor-beam effect belongs to Joan Bennett’s postwar uber-Mom, whose efforts at keeping her O.C.-resort-town family intact are assaulted by a rebellious slut daughter and her middle-aged skeeveball boyfriend (a frank and reprehensible Shepperd Strudwick); when the slick hump shows up dead on the family beach, Mom kicks into protective gear and hides the body. As if the bitter cologne of Fritz Lang lingered on Bennett from their 40s fraternization and rubbed off on Ophuls, the film watches the methodical hand of fate slowly close in sometimes long, dialogue-free sequences. But what’s unLangian is the startling and completely grown-up attention paid to Bennett’s character, arguably the best she ever had,a fashionable modern woman forced into (but not savvy about) cold-blooded crime to save her spoiled children, and keeping her lid on so tight she can nag the kids about manners and spar with a mysterious blackmailer (Mason) practically in the same breath. The amount of story carrying on underneath the surface is hypnotic, and Mason’s guilt-ridden hood is fascinatingly out of place, but it’s Bennett’s show, and hers is one of the most nuanced and resonant lead performances of the 40s.

The Reckless Moment (1949) screens at Film Forum on Labor Day.