By Norman Hale
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Max Ophuls, the great European film director, once observed in conversation with a friend that different love relationships are expressed by different tokens: traditionally a man gives fresh-cut flowers to his mistress, but a potted plant to his wife.* Social rituals with their attendant images fascinated Ophuls. Of special interest to him were the conventional images surrounding romantic love: the sending of flowers, the exchange of jewelry, dancing as an erotic mating ritual, and the exchange of delicately scented, invariably tragic love notes. His films are full of these social rituals in various combinations. But Ophuls’ formulation of the flower ritual attests to more than a sharp eye for custom. In his expression of the rule about what kind of flowers to give to whom, Ophuls lays bare the social logic which underlies the custom of giving flowers. That social logic prescribes that the ephemeral loved one be presented with an ephemeral token; and, like for like, the more permanent loved one is to be presented with a token whose characteristics are stability, growth, and relative permanence. The flowers and the potted plant are not neutral images to which a social meaning has been added. Rather, the meanings of social rituals derive from characteristics inherent in the very objects which express the rituals. Ophuls’ genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal this logic on the screen, to show how a ritual, its object, and its meaning are related.
While cut flowers seem to be a widespread Western image, the significance and usage of the image differs slightly in each particular culture. Moreover, culture has other, more specific and local images which are not transferable, just as the nuances of language are sometimes untranslatable. When Max Ophuls left Europe for America, he surely encountered a culture with a different social imagery than he was accustomed to. His first two films here are cautious historical or period pieces, highly European in flavor. However, the two following films attempt to deal with a specific American milieu. The latter of these—and the last film Ophuls made in the United States—The Reckless Moment (1949) is complete in its mastery of the American idiom.
By American idiom I do not mean merely speech, although Ophuls’ ear flawlessly recreates a range of dialects from teenage slang to upper-middle-class English to the argot of the lower-class villains. Rather, I mean that Ophuls captures and analyzes American domestic life with the assurance of one who understands its unspoken rules. In a way uncanny for a non-native, he understands the parameters of American social beliefs and taboos. “Belief” may be too strong a word to use since it implies a conscious attitude. Ophuls is primarily concerned with the unconscious, half-articulated, vague notions which rule American domestic life.
Initially, The Reckless Moment presents an image of ideal American life straight from popular culture. The Harpers are a slightly upper-middle-class white family living in the commuter city of Balboa just outside of Los Angeles. Their home is a large, modern, two-story house located on an inland waterway. The Harpers are unmistakably affluent: their property is spacious and includes a boat, a boat dock, and a large, two-story boathouse. The number of children conforms to the ideal—two: Bea (Geraldine Brooks), the teenage daughter with a college boyfriend in the neighborhood, and David (David Bair), younger, at the age to be involved with cars, sports, and music lessons. The family also includes a resident father-in-law (Henry O’Neill) and a Negro maid named Sybil (Frances E. Williams). The externals testify to a warm, prosperous family situation.
Yet from its beginnings the film suggests a more sinister interpretation of these sunny images. The Reckless Moment opens with Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) driving to Los Angeles on an unspecified errand. There she meets a shady criminal and art dealer named Darby (Shepperd Strudwick) who is having an illicit affair with the daughter, Bea. Needless to say, Darby is hardly the type of toad one expects to find in the middle-class Harper garden. Further anomalies come to light. The husband and father, pillar of the household, is literally absent from the film and from the family. An engineer on location in Berlin, Tom Harper is not even so much as a voice on the phone (from the audience’s viewpoint). His absence is even more striking in that the Christmas holidays, those generally most sacred to the family, are just beginning.
Opening with these seemingly rather simple conditions, none too absurd to imagine in a typical American family, Ophuls weaves a tragedy of circumstances whose villain appears to be the family itself. On the night of the day Lucia Harper warns Darby to stay away from her daughter, he is killed accidentally by falling on the boat anchor after a secret assignation with Bea. His body is found early the next morning by Lucia, who determines to dispose of it to protect her daughter. At this point she fears Bea might be responsible for killing him. Just when it appears that Lucia Harper might escape police attention, she is confronted by a new terror in the form of Martin Donnelly (James Mason). Donnelly has come to blackmail her for the return of a bundle of compromising letters Bea wrote to Darby, letters which Donnelly theorizes the police would be interested in. When Donnelly demands money that she does not have, the essential strategic aspect of the film is established.
This strategy is to endow Lucia Harper with a secret that, because of its nature, obliges her to act alone and with stealth. Simultaneously, she must maintain a surface decorum so that her family will not suspect anything is wrong. They know neither that Donnelly is a blackmailer, nor that Darby was in any way connected with the household. They are, of course, unaware that Lucia tampered with Darby’s body. Because of this secret, her life is turned inside out. The rules, habits, and attitudes which govern her normal existence are no longer sufficient for her changed situation. Because of its radical differentness from her conventional life, her new situation illuminates more fully how her life was defined in the past. For example, when she tries to raise money to pay the blackmail, she discovers that she cannot get action from the local bank without her husband’s signature; she has no collateral to offer to an independent loan company, and no way to repay the loan even if she did get it. She is entirely ignorant of financial affairs, obviously having been content in the past to let her husband handle them.
Still more striking than this, however, is the extent to which Lucia Harper does not even have the basic freedom to move and act in privacy. All of her actions come under the ruthless scrutiny of her family. The slightest change in routine, the slightest deviation from a predictable pattern leads them to start asking questions. Their questions are not malicious or intentionally cruel; they are merely the result of so many years of living close together in predictable routines. When pressed by Donnelly to go to Los Angeles immediately for the money, Lucia replies that her actions would be suspicious, having been to Los Angeles just two days before to warn Darby off Bea. Because Donnelly imagines that well-to-do women enjoy a great mobility and freedom, he finds it hard to believe that she is so restricted. He says (with sarcasm and seriousness equally mixed), “You’re quite a prisoner, aren’t you?” Lucia replies hotly that she “doesn’t feel like one.”
As Lucia becomes more desperate and as the blackmail pressure grows, the family’s demands increase. Their problems suffocate her as she tries to solve their (by comparison) trivial concerns and her own more serious ones. She must humor Bea’s moodiness, her father-in-law’s noddiness, and David’s exuberant spirits. He commits the catalogue of sins typical of 13-year-olds: he shouts, teases, argues, lectures, and plays loud music. Even though the demands are expectable in a normal family situation, they nonetheless seem more and more like unfeeling intrusions into this suffering woman’s life. Ophuls has created exactly the correct dramatic situation with all the irony to point up the ways that family life requires the sacrifices on the part of women and mothers.** Most notably, women are not allowed or expected to be financially competent; as mothers they are expected to be dependent, but also are expected to sacrifice themselves for their children.
To the extent that Lucia Harper has allowed herself to follow a sexual role outlined by her, she does aggravate her problems. However, it would be a mistake to argue that Lucia Harper’s story is entirely a tragedy of victimization by gender. Such a story would be neither profound nor interesting. Rather, her tragedy is the concurrence of unpredictable events of a unique nature which engage all of her weaknesses at once. Bea’s love affair, her husband’s absence, the approach of the holidays are all part of the circumstances which culminate in tragedy.
Lucia Harper’s tragedy is highlighted by three especially prominent recurring images chosen for their unique physical characteristics: the house, the telephone, and the automobile. Each is a common object in the popular culture. As with the ritual of flower-giving, we can say that each of these objects has its own particular laws of use. These uses, which are determined by the object’s physical structure, complicate the protagonist’s life to the extent that she becomes a prisoner of the use patterns the objects impose.
• The house is the enclosed structure in which the Harper family lives. We see the entire house from outside only once, and that is on the morning Lucia hides Darby’s body. In the early morning stillness, the house represents for Lucia all of the things she wants to protect. But Ophuls is more concerned to reveal how the definition of space inside a house can govern the activities which occur there. Its maze of hallways, stairs, louvered doorways, and walkways to the outside contribute to a feeling of constant movement in open space. The house is treated as a place of restless activity.
In one marked example, the spatial dynamics of the house act as Lucia Harper’s nemesis. Martin Donnelly has come to pay his first blackmail call. Since their conversation naturally requires privacy, Donnelly closes the louvered doors at the left side of the livingroom. At a crucial point in the revelation of the letters, David bursts in unannounced through the set of doors to the left. In rapid succession he greets his mother, offers to play a new song he has learned, and teases Bea (visible through the now-open door) about one of her “arty” friends who “got bumped off right near here” (Darby, of course). Lucia manages to shoo him from the room and Donnelly completes his explanation of how he acquired Bea’s letters. A second interruption occurs when the father-in-law comes in through the front door—to the right—carrying the Christmas tree under his arm. He is told that Donnelly is an associate of Tom Harper’s, whereupon he instantly offers him a drink and invites him to dinner.
The livingroom is a wide, airy trap, its openness quite ironical. The house is clearly not a place which facilitates intimacy or privacy. Following the abovementioned scene, Bea—who has just learned of Darby’s death from David and the newspaper—asks to see her mother alone. Lucia reluctantly leaves her father-in-law with Donnelly in the livingroom. With David upstairs playing his instrument, the only quiet refuge for a private talk is a strange little glassed-in room just off the kitchen. Even though the actual words they speak are private, they are always under the eye of Sybil, who is working in the kitchen. At times of crisis like this when Lucia most needs privacy, the house is least able to provide it. Its normal patterns of use have been predicated upon the belief that members of the family have no secrets to keep from one another.
Just as the nature of space determines much of what happens in the home, there is another aspect of space working on a larger scale. I am thinking specifically of the city of Balboa itself. Because of its small size, it is like the Harper livingroom: Lucia Harper can’t drive down a main street, go into a drugstore or the post office to mail a package without being recognized by postmen, repairmen, druggists, and neighbors. The spaces of her life in Balboa, like those of her life at home, have become rigorously defined and predictable. Lucia had not realized how little freedom she really has until she is put to the test. Just as she must hide Martin Donnelly’s identity from the prying eyes of her family, so too must she hide him from the citizens of Balboa, forcing him to drive through back streets so they won’t be seen.
• A second important domestic image which dominates The Reckless Moment is the telephone. There are five telephone conversations in the film: the opening and closing calls are from Tom Harper and act as formal elements enclosing the film; Darby calls Bea once; Lucia calls an aunt to take care of Bea; Donnelly calls Lucia to tell her that she doesn’t need to get the money after all, and he confesses he was happy to have met her. No single meaning attaches to all of these calls—except that clearly the telephone is not used to communicate joy, warmth, or sharing as telephone company advertising would have us believe. In the instance of the calls from Berlin, the telephone brings bad news (Tom won’t be home for Christmas) and it suggests all of the circumstances of fast-paced modern life which make such separations of loved ones not only possible but inevitable. With rare exceptions, the telephone does not facilitate expressions of intimacy between parties. In this film, the phone is always associated with separation, sadness, and superficiality.
Even though the telephone is a completely inanimate object, it too enforces certain patterns of use in much the same way the rooms of the house do. As long as Lucia, or anyone who uses the phone, has no need for a private or intimate conversation, the telephone serves as an adequate instrument. But when the need for privacy occurs, the normal pattern of telephone use must be altered. When Lucia phones Aunt Edna to take Bea off her hands for a while, she must use the drugstore telephone to avoid raising suspicions in her household. The telephone at home imposes the restrictions it does because, like most family telephones, it exists in open space—located, in this case, in a little no-man’s-land at the foot of the stairs, in an alcove between two rooms, where any conversation becomes public property. When Tom Harper first calls home, everyone crowds into this little area; we see even Sybil the maid leaning over to hear the news. Even after the rest of the family is supposedly shooed away so Lucia can speak to her husband privately, Bea apparently goes only around the corner of the stairs. Her shadow falling across the wall in the background is the mute evidence she is eavesdropping on her mother’s call.
• The last important image is the ubiquitous automobile. Perhaps no other piece of machinery has played such a prominent role in the mythology of the popular culture—a means of liberation. The automobile has made possible the existence of cities like Balboa. Though not explicitly described as such in the film, Tom Harper is surely a commuter to Los Angeles. Los Angeles defines the center of this economic world and Balboa is its appendage. Without dwelling on the sociological aspects of the flight from the cities (which I’m convinced Ophuls was aware of), the automobile is presented as the great escape vehicle of our culture. Even David has a typical jalopy which he constantly works on in preparation for the day he is old enough to drive.
But if the automobile has freed the Harpers from the urban jungle and allowed them to escape, they have paid a price in return. I have mentioned already how the environment of Balboa makes it impossible for Lucia to go about unrecognized as she can in Los Angeles. Instead of being liberated by her automobile, she is now more dependent upon it than ever. She argues with Donnelly that she cannot go to Los Angeles again because her family would be suspicious, and also because they are too dependent upon the car and have reserved it for their own use. The automobile does not create independence, but merely a different set of dependencies. Without a car, Lucia is forced to use public transportation, which she finds inconvenient. The bus is late, making her late and arousing family suspicions even more. As with the examples of the house and the phone, the automobile works well enough as transportation until the conditions of Lucia’s life change. And only in the light of her changed life does her relationship to the use patterns of the automobile become apparent.
These diverse images point to a common meaning. The objects in/with which Lucia Harper lives, travels, and communicates restrict her in some way simply because of their physical characteristics. Because each object implies a certain kind of use, the combination of their uses results in a narrowed, or more specific, range of human activity. The numbers and types of objects around Lucia Harper are a function of her class, and the restrictions placed upon her are also restrictions characterized by class. Ultimately, The Reckless Moment is a love story frustrated by class differences. Lucia Harper finds it difficult to think of Martin Donnelly as a human being capable of any warmth. She insists that he is a different kind of person from herself. When Donnelly suggests that he and his partner Nagel (Roy Roberts) are like Lucia and her family in their dependence upon each other, she retorts that he and Nagel are “just a couple of common blackmailers held together by a common interest in cheating people.” She tartly refuses his offer of lunch. Back in L.A., the sinister Nagel warns Donnelly: “This lady’s not in your class…. I often think you get mad at me because I remind you of what you are.”
Only at certain rare moments can the walls between classes be breached. It occurs in this case when Martin Donnelly sacrifices himself for Lucia. He has killed Nagel in a fight in the boathouse, and he takes it upon himself to get rid of the body although he is wounded himself. His sacrifice for Lucia is, of course, a repetition of Lucia’s own sacrifice for Bea when she hides Darby’s body. In a continuation of the automobile imagery, Donnelly is severely injured as his car runs off the road. In his dying moments he returns the blackmail letters to Lucia who, for the very first time in the film, betrays real emotion: she breaks down and openly weeps.
Unfortunately, the moment of spiritual and emotional communion cannot last. Lucia Harper returns home, her secret still unknown to everyone but Sybil who has accompanied her in following Donnelly’s car. Again she is called to the phone and forced to speak to her faceless, voiceless husband now effaced to nothingness in our imagination by the strength of Donnelly’s image as though nothing has happened. The closing shot of the film is of a tear-stained Lucia Harper on the telephone, falling back down into the web of conventions which define her daily life—and indeed, sliding all but out of view behind the dark bars of the stair rail. Her last words concern holiday preparations: “We’re going to have a blue Christmas tree. And everything’s fine except we miss you terribly.” Presumably the knowledge of this incident will forever be known only to her and Sybil.
Ophuls’ critique of the American family is primarily directed toward the lack of fundamental freedoms it allows its members. But he also acknowledges that members of American families are no different from any other given set of people who exist with machines and structures that define their lives. To an extent, the emphasis on the house, telephone, and automobile constitute Ophuls’ attempt to recreate the images and attitudes of a specific culture. But at the same time he is seeking to illuminate the existential condition of people in general, and to show how the ways they feel about themselves and their society are reflected in—and result from—the world of physical objects they live in.
© 1978 Norman Hale
* This remark was noted in Howard Koch’s reminiscence of Max Ophuls in “Script to Screen with Max Ophuls,” Film Comment 6, 4 (Winter ’70-’71), pp. 40-43.
** I think Ophuls feels that everyone, not just women, is trapped in some way by physical space. I’m reminded that David and his grandfather share a small bedroom and some friction exists between them because of their close quarters. The film, however; chooses to limit itself to the case of Lucia Harper, and is told almost entirely from her point of view.
THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949)
Direction: Max Ophuls (on screen, Opuls). Screenplay: Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg; story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; adapted by Mel Dinelli and Robert E. Kent. Cinematography: Burnett Guffey. Art direction: Cary Odell; set decoration: Frank Tuttle. Editing: Gene Havlick. Music: Hans J. Salter. Production: Walter Wanger. Columbia.
The players: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks, David Bair, Henry O’Neill, Frances E. Williams, Shepperd Strudwick, Roy Roberts.