(director: Max Ophüls; screenwriters: from the short story “The Blank Wall” by Elisabeth S. Holding/Robert W. Soderberg/Robert Kent/Henry Garson/Mel Dinelli; cinematographer: Burnett Guffey; editor: Gene Havlick; cast: James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), Geraldine Brooks (Beatrice Harper), Henry O’Neill (Mr. Harper), Sheppard Strudwick (Ted Darby), David Blair (David Harper), Roy Roberts (Nagle), Frances Williams (Sybil); Runtime: 81;Columbia;1949)

“A very engaging thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Max Ophüls (Caught/Lola Montes/The Earrings of Madame de …) is a director not usually associated with noir film, in fact his films tend to be the antithesis of such films. But, nonetheless, he has come up with a first-class melodramatic thriller, very much in the noir spirit, by complementing Guffey’s black-and-white photographs of shadowy figures and long craning shots with a dark story about an everyday reality. In his filming technique he captures the quick darting movements of the heroine’s nervous actions and of the male protagonist’s heroic act, using an encircling camera and giving the scene an airy feel of possible freedom to contrast with the tight close-up shots of them. It works, as it shows how trapped the main characters are by the station of life they were born into and how they can’t freely change their routines.

A voiceover begins the film by saying that last Christmas Mrs. Lucia Harper (Joan) had left her serene little town, an upper-middle-class residence in Balboa, California, as the film via flashback shows us what transpired. She goes 50-miles to Los Angeles and meets a slimy, art dealer, Ted Darby (Sheppard), who has been seeing, against her permission, her 17-year-old daughter Bea (Brooks). The world for these two is literally miles apart in every way. Los Angeles is where the young girl went to study art instead of going to college like her father wanted her to. Lucia blames herself for backing her daughter’s choice because it gave a chance for her daughter to meet an undesirable such as Darby.

Darby is in need of money, and he tells Lucia that if she gives him enough money he will no longer see her daughter. Lucia feels that she has heard enough from him and she is sure Bea will no longer be interested in him when she tells her his reaction.

Lucia’s husband is away for the holidays on a work assignment, building a bridge in Berlin, and her contact with him is through letters and periodic phone calls. But the family is always around the house. It consists of Bea’s younger brother David (David) and Lucia’s elderly father-in-law (O’Neill), and the Negro live-in maid, the ever-trustworthy Sybil (Williams).

Lucia is anxious not to tarnish the family name in any possible way; she decides not to tell her husband what’s going on, feeling that her talk with Bea should clear things. But Bea is at a rebellious stage and refuses to fully believe her mother or appreciate her interference. Instead, Bea meets Darby at the family boathouse that night and confronts him with what her mother said. “The Reckless Moment” becomes more ominous when she gets so upset with herself for believing him that she slaps him and makes him dizzy by hitting him on the head with her flashlight. While trying to run after her, he trips on the dock and accidentally kills himself.

When Bea tells Lucia what happened she decides to take her motorboat out at dawn before the family is awake, and puts an anchor on the body and dumps him in the water. She tells Bea to forget about Darby and never to mention his name again.

The newspaper headlines the next day are about Darby’s body found as it washed ashore in Balboa, a place where murders do not happen. To add complications to the illegal act Lucia did, of not reporting the body to the police, she has a visitor, Martin Donnelly (Mason). He reads to her the mushy love letters Bea wrote to Darby, which the seedy Darby sold to a ruthless loan shark named Nagle (Roy). Donnelly is a low-level crook who works for Nagle and is blackmailing Mrs. Harper for the amount of $5,000. If she doesn’t pay he threatens to give the letters to the newspapers, which will allow the police to implicate her daughter in the murder. Lucia weighs his blackmail demands, and seems even more fearful of her middle-class bourgeois values being upset by some scandalous newspaper reports than anything else. Not having that kind of money on hand she tries unsuccessfully to stall Donnelly; but, he tells her that he works for an impatient and vicious man, and she better deal with him.

The twist in the story is that Donnelly gets enamored with the middle-class world of Mrs. Harper and becomes dreamily inclined towards her, impressed that she would do anything to protect her daughter; that is something his mother back in Ireland would not have done for him. He feels his life could have been different if he met a woman like her when he was younger. So when she can’t get a loan and could only get $800 by hocking her jewelry he tells her to forget it, she doesn’t have to pay Nagle, the police have arrested someone for the crime. But Lucia protests, I can’t let an innocent person go to jail for the crime he didn’t do. But Donnelly impatiently tells her, “What’s the use of sacrificing your family for him, he is only one of Darby’s associates. If he’s innocent of this one, he’s guilty of others.”

But Nagle is not satisfied with Donnelly showing up without the money and visits Lucia, where he is told by Sybil to wait for her in the boathouse. His presence is horrifying to the middle-class woman, but soon Donnelly arrives and he fights with Nagle. He gets stabbed in the process, but he is able to choke him to death. When the frightened Lucia has enough of this underworld scene, she tells Donnelly she wants to go to the police and tell all. But, he tells her he’ll take care of things and not to do anything. He puts the dead body of Nagle in his car and accidentally goes off one of the sharp turns on the road, where he is severely injured. When Lucia catches up with him she’s in the car with Sybil with whom she just related exactly what happened, as they come upon the car crash and Donnelly is still barely alive. He tells her he is dying anyway and will confess to killing both Darby and Nagle.

In the last scene her husband calls and her family unaware of what she did for them, anxiously await his return. And she returns so easily to her bourgeois world as if she never left it and resumes being an ordinary housewife, talking to her husband about the Christmas tree.

Bennett and Mason give sterling performances, pulling out all the nuances their role’s demanded. The film is taut and tense, elegantly directed by Ophüls in a simple but powerful way. The Mason character, despite his gallantry, will still be considered a social outcast by Bennett.

A very engaging thriller, every bit as good as the more respectable films the classy director has made.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”