Joan Bennett plays Lucia Harper in The Reckless Moment, all-American wife and mother in a small California seaside town. As the film opens, a lowlife named Darby gets his hooks into Lucia’s gullible daughter Bea, an art student. When Lucia warns Darby to keep away from Bea, he only agrees to do so in exchange for a healthy amount of shakedown cash. Rather than pay, Lucia shares the details of the encounter with Bea in hopes of proving that Darby is a scoundrel. Predictably, Bea doesn’t believe her mother. However, later that evening when the young couple meets in the family boathouse Darby confesses, and a shocked and distraught Bea brains him with an anchor and flees. Dazed and bleeding, Darby stumbles through a rotten railing and falls to the sand below. Early the next morning, Lucia discovers his corpse, and decides to hide the body instead of contacting the authorities. She rows out beyond the surf and heaves Darby’s remains over the side. All seems well at first, but soon the body is discovered by the authorities. A short while later, a blackmailer named Martin Donnelly (James Mason) shows up in Lucia’s living room, wanting five grand in exchange for incriminating love letters between the daughter and the dead man.
Despite much of what has been written about this superior film, The Reckless Moment is not film noir’s take on what a mother will do to protect her family. In this case the family unit is never directly threatened — a man dies, but his underworld status makes it unlikely that the gullible Bea would actually be convicted of, or even charged with a crime. Even in some far-fetched scenario that led to an indictment and guilty verdict, there’s simply no chance whatsoever that the girl would be sent to Tehachapi. In all likelihood, the family would have survived the potential scandal with reputation unscathed, Bea seen as little more than the innocent victim of a scoundrel — and a lesson to those ‘free-spirited’ young girls who would attend art school. Instead the film represents something far more subtle: what a woman will do to prevent the disruption of her family life, and by extension, the American Dream itself. This idea is brought forth through the relationship of Lucia and the sensitive grifter Donnelly, which explains the casting of an actor of James Mason’s range in such a critical role.
The family structure in The Reckless Moment is an idealized vision of the postwar dream. Composed of a loving couple with two attractive teenagers, a live-in grandpa, and a black servant without a care in the world; the Harpers have the day-to-day gripes of any upper middle class family — a hard-working father who is constantly away from home (though he has the commendable excuse of war work), a love-sick daughter who craves independence, and a pesky, rambunctious son. Yet the foundation upon which this model family is built is so much bedrock: strong, unbreakable, wholly American. Their relationships are honest and realistic rather than excessively melodramatic or saccharine The Harper home is tastefully appointed, yet threadbare in all the right places. Everything about the Harpers is more than adequate, yet somehow ordinary. The town of Balboa is a Rockwellian extension of the family itself: people talk to one another (and like any family occasionally bicker) on the street — and everyone, rich or poor, is on a first-name basis.
The necessary plot contrivance that allows events in the movie to occur is the absence of the father. Away doing reconstruction work in Berlin, we never meet Mr. Harper. Ever-present through phone calls and hastily written letters, the idea of the missing patriarch looms heavily over the other characters, and we are forced to ponder whether or not any of the film’s drama would have occurred had he been present. Although there are few creatures more lowly than an unwed mother in postwar cinema, the wholesome family is so empowering that, despite an absent father, Lucia becomes a veritable superwoman — a force of nature. It’s important to recognize that while the momentary and understandable breakdown in the familial structure is the cause of much grief in The Reckless Moment, it is the narcotic attractiveness of that same structure that causes the criminal element in the film to self-destruct rather than assault it.
And yet, there’s a dark underside to Mrs. Harper’s mundane and ordinary life. Had she not been the sole available parent at the time of Bea’s traumatic run-in with Darby, Lucia would have never discovered her own hidden strength and determination. Her role as housewife is too inherently supportive to allow her to experience the risks, rewards, and responsibilities of true independence — which she struggles with, but also finds liberating. This is evident through her fairly free association with Donnelly, with whom she makes no effort to hide her conspicuous relationship. Even as Donnelly is attracted to the wholesome tedium of Lucia’s life, she welcomes the chance to break with it. One of the film’s ironies is that Lucia’s pseudo-romantic relationship with Donnelly is surprisingly similar to that of Bea and Darby. The crucial difference being that while Darby was truly a scumbag, Donnelly is essentially a good man who, not being American, was never given a proper shot at achieving the Dream. His redemption isn’t achieved through assimilation to the American way of life, but by sacrificing himself to preserve it.
Understanding Donnelly is crucial. As a poor Irish immigrant orphaned into a life of crime, he is as enamored of Lucia’s family life as he is of her beauty. Despite his better judgment and the criticisms of his partners, Donnelly slowly insinuates himself into the family’s activities, from shopping with Lucia to helping son David with an outboard motor, to discussing life in the old country with the elder Mr. Harper. He is allowed to do this only because of the absence of Lucia’s husband — regardless of the fact that Donnelly is a blackmailer and ostensibly out to destroy them. The Harpers accept him into their world with such a sense of ease, because of their own neighborly attitudes and his obvious yearning to participate in their square life. His fleeting inclusion in their family opens his jaded eyes to a new kind of life. This is his first glimpse of the American dream, and he finds it so alluring that instead of carrying through on his blackmail demands, he instead tries to protect Lucia from his partners, and ultimately kills for her, before sacrificing himself to preserve her and her family — proving with sober finality that in The Reckless Moment, the American family and the American dream are indestructible.
The Reckless Moment (1949)
Producer: Walter Wanger
Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey
Art Director: Cary Odell
Screenplay: Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg, based on a story by E. S. Holding
Starring: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 82 minutes