Movie Reviews by Walter Albert

  Note: This column first appeared in The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 7, No. 3, May-June 1983.

   The University of Pittsburgh recently hosted the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema Studies and more than 150 scholars spent four very busy days delivering and listening to papers, attending film showings, and socializing. There were twenty-nine panels, each of them consisting of the reading of three or four papers, followed by discussions, and there was a variety of screenings, highlighted by Robert Altman’s 1982 film, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which the director attended for a post-screening session at which he responded to questions from a large and very sympathetic audience,

   The general topic of the convention was film genre, and the often sparsely attended screenings — film scholars seem to prefer to talk and be talked at rather than cluster anonymously in improvised screening rooms — featured a series of films “on, in, and beyond the genre.”

   Since the films were scheduled at the same time as the panels, I was constantly faced with agonizing decisions. However, I was able to reconcile most of my warring interests and managed to spend several hours in the dark watching Frank Borzage’s Mannequin (1938), a “melodrama of fashion and fetishism with Joan Crawford”; Dario Argento’s stylish horror film, Suspiria (1977); Robert Altman’s very individual and probably unclassifiable comedy drama, Brewster McCloud (1970); and Max Ophuls’ 1949 movie, The Reckless Moment, in addition to the festival screening of Altman’s Jimmy Dean film.

   Since I had already seen DeMille’s Unconquered (1947), Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980), and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979), I managed a fairly comprehensive coverage of the convention films.

   One of the things that was clear from several of the panels I attended was that there is increasing recognition of the fact that the sub-genres (musical, western, science-fiction, film noir) are not aIways “pure” and there is a fair amount of “bleeding” among the various types, with, for example, elements of the crime film or film noir turning up in westerns or in musicals.

   Since writers on film have traditionally had difficulty defining film noir, establishing firm chronologies, and identifying those films which are undeniably noir, this makes it possible to examine a wide range of films in a number of different categories. Anyone who has looked very closely at the two major books on film noir, the Silver/Ward Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Overlook Press, 1980) and Foster Hirsch’s work, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir (A. S. Barnes, 1981), will have been struck by the lack of agreement on the basic body of films thought to constitute the official canon.

   There is, thus, under way what could be a very fruitful re-examination of the subject , and I would expect that over the next few years there will be major reformulations that will both define more precisely noir elements and refine their applications to particular films.


   While both Silver/Ward and Hirsch list Max Ophuls’ Reckless Moment in their filmographies, Silver/Ward point out the anomaly of casting a woman as the potentially doomed victim, rather than, as is usually the case in noir films, the tracked male. The casting is also ironic in that the woman is played by Joan Bennett, who was the destructive femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window, here playing an upper middle-class housewife who embarks upon a sequence of lies and deceptions to protect her daughter whom she mistakenly believes to be responsible for the death of her blackmailing lover.

   The film is based on a story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, “The Blank Wall,” and has all the elements of standard woman-in-peril magazine fiction but reshaped by the superb direction of Ophuls into a subtle study of middle-class morality threatened by a seductive outsider (Shepperd Strudwick) who is “removed” and then replaced by an even more potentially dangerous threat (a blackmailer, James Mason, working with a totally unprincipled partner).

   The strength of the film is not only in the fluid, accomplished camera work which tracks Bennett in her increasingly more frantic quest for salvation and liberation, but in the bond which develops between Mason and Bennett, the rootless outsider, the black sheep, as he tells her, of his family, and the mother whose only concern is to protect her daughter from the consequences of her folly and keep the stain from contaminating the house and the other members of the family.


   The film is at its most intense and claustrophobic (she is, after all, walled in by her fears and assumptions) in its handling of the interior spaces of the Harper house. Bennett paces incessantly through the house, nervously chain-smoking, trying to hide her machinations from her family, as if she were turning in a cage.

   In the foreground, the camera is most obsessive about Bennett’s every move, but it is also recording, in the background, the routine of the family, so that the spectator is bound by a sense of a precarious balance between the two levels and of the constant threat of the possibility of the rupturing of the fragile membrane that separates the two.

   Bennett plays the role with a dark distraction in which she see ms always to be just a bit to one side of the on-screen action, plotting her next move. She is frequently interrupted, never really alone — even when she is driving with Donnelly, the character played by Mason, at a traffic light someone leans from the next car to talk to her.

   She is always tracked by the camera, but this is symptomatic of a larger trajectory at which her every movement seems to coincide with an intersection. There is no one moment in the film that is in itself irretrievably reckless. It is rather the narrative, restlessly exploring the implications of movements, that is reckless.


   Lucia Harper (Bennett) can only be saved by the intervention of an outside agency, initially threatening, finally converted into something benign and protective, a member of her extended family taking from her the role she cannot herself carry off successfully and restoring her as manager of the household and bearer of the telephone message to a no longer threatening exterior world, “Everything’s fine.”

   There are some of the recognizable features of film noir in the depiction of the doomed character (here uncharacteristically rescued), in the menacing shadows and reflections, and in the atmospheric — and sometimes sordid — milieux that we associate with the genre. But The Reckless Moment is no more to be restricted by a characterization of genre than any other film that uses form not for constriction but for expansion and elaboration.

   This is probably not a film of the same distinction as Ophuls’ Pleasure, The Earrings of Madame X, and Lola Montes, but it is a film of uncommon intelligence and taste, transforming its materials into something at once imperious and elusive, a perfect demonstration of Ophuls’ belief that, in art, “the most insignificant, the most unobtrusive among [details] are often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive. Exact details, an artful little nothing, make art.”

THE RECKLESS MOMENT. Columbia, 1949. James Mason, Joan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks, Henry O’Neill, Shepperd Strudwick, David Bair, Roy Roberts. Based on the novel The Blank Wall (Simon & Schuster, 1947) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Director: Max Ophüls.