Max Ophul’s 1949 film, The Reckless Moment, was created during what film critics call the period of Classical Hollywood Cinema.
This period of American filmmaking was tightly constrained by long term studios who controlled a film’s production, distribution and exhibition. A year after the Paramount Decision that “broke up” these suffocating rules in 1948, The Reckless Moment was produced. The Reckless Moment still contains some stylistics features of production on a strict, efficient budget. But, Ophul’s film managed to challenge the audience’s expectations of Hollywood cinema in the mid 1900s.
The motion picture “Production Code” were the moral guidelines for a film, and weren’t loosened till the 1960s. The Reckless Moment manages to break one of their rules outright. The story of murder and blackmail contains immoral characters that are never truly punished. In the mid 1900, evil characters always got what they deserved; its what made audiences comfortable. Ophul’s film breaks this rule and it gives other variations in Classical Hollywood Cinema’s style. The Reckless Moment is character/goal oriented, contains a “private world versus public world” tone, and the story wraps up with the right amount of closure.
The Reckless Moment focuses on Lucia Harper, a mother of two whose husband is overseas. Her daughter, Bea, gets romantically involved with an older, corrupt man, Ted Darby, who won’t leave the family alone until he is paid off. While attempting to break off their relationship, Bea ends up murdering Darby, only to have her mother, Lucia, discover and hide the body.
The mother-daughter turmoil is what the beginning of the film focuses on, until a shady gambler, Martin Donnelly, enters the messy picture.
Blackmail becomes the focus once more as Martin wickedly threatens Lucia with Bea’s love letters to the murdered man, Darby. The audience will find itself getting caught up in this family’s disaster. They will be drawn in by the negative lens that family was portray with. We get quotes like “a family can surround you sometimes” (39:00). Or, when discussing the cover-up, Lucia saying “everyone has a mother like me” (43:00). Finally, Donnelly hits it home when he mentions “you’re quite a prisoner aren’t you?” (43:52) when talking to Lucia.
Classical Hollywood Cinema focuses on character oriented stories, but The Reckless Moment focuses on Lucia as well as Lucia and her family, when it comes to the main conflict. One could relate it’s narrative to the narrative of the television show Breaking Bad from 2008; in terms of a normal, American family becoming corrupted by the head of the household trying to do what is best. The protagonist, in turn becoming a criminal.
Ophul’s film follows the Classical Hollywood Cinema guideline of contrasting the character’s private world with the public world. It does this by placing its audience in media res, or in the middle of things. Right away, the storytelling places us at the end of Bea and Ted’s relationship that has been ongoing for a non disclosed amount of time.
We see the end of Bea’s relationship, her becoming a murderer. And thus, audiences are taken on the wild ride that is Lucia, trying to keep her (and her family’s) private secrets from public view.
This leads to blackmail from Donnelly who ends up falling in love with Lucia, a Classical Hollywood Cinema trope I thought this film did a stodgy job enforcing. We, as an audience, have to keep track of all the secrets being kept while also wondering how they could possibly be resolved.
Audiences are placed in the middle of the sinful narrative when Lucia disposes of Ted Darby’s body. The scene is a four-minute-long, silent sequence where we can’t help but reflect on how the situation could get so out of control. How would we handle this particular problem? The scandalous narrative is climaxed when the blackmailer, Donnelly, becomes a murderer along with Lucia. We feel, as an audience, that these private secrets must come into the public light.
The last Classical Hollywood Cinema content-rule The Reckless Moment draws upon is a final sense of closure for audiences. American audiences at the time (1949) are used to getting either a sad or a happy ending. Everyone wanted something nice that ties the story up with a bow and lets them walk away from the theater with a solidified, satisfying ending. A main character either fails or succeeds in his or her endeavors and their desires condemn or liberate them.
But, with Ophul’s film, we are unnerved at the ending. None of the immoral characters are brought to justice for their actions by law enforcement. The police are the antagonist we are all waiting to descend upon our character throughout the film, but they never do. When it comes to the ending of The Reckless Moment, one cannot check a yes or no box in reference to it being a happy ending. Lucia’s family is safe from criminal trial, but, they have to bear the weight of their actions and secrets until they die. This is a concept we don’t see in Classical Hollywood Cinema. I appreciate the film’s ability to let the audience decide for themselves if the character’s actions were moral or immoral.
All in all, The Reckless Moment doesn’t adhere to Classical Hollywood Cinema’s guidelines. But, it is disguised as a film that does.
That is how change comes to be in Hollywood- slow and unsure. There is a focus on a character and her goal, while also branching into themes of moral and familial responsibility. Full of tracking shots that show us a criminal, private world hidden from the public. And finally, an fragmented sense of closure that we have to put together ourselves. I can say that the end of The Reckless Moment made me consider the lengths we go to for our families, especially when they stretch into immoral actions.
This topic being explored in the 1950s during such a strict time in cinema should be applauded.
Ophul, Max, director. Reckless Moment. Colombia Pictures, 1949.