This lesser-known film noir, starring Joan Bennett, depicts how overwhelming it was to be a woman and a mother in the mid-20th century – and within a genre usually reserved for men.
By Emily Kubincanek · Published on November 30, 2021
Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old films and explores what makes them memorable. In this episode, she breaks down a rare film noir from a woman’s perspective: The Reckless Moment.
The film noir genre radiates traditional masculine energy. With hard-boiled characters, calculated plots, and tangible anger, it’s easy to assume that women only got the role of seducer or femme fatale when they appeared in these films. That assumption, however, is far from the truth, especially outside the framework of the classics.
Hollywood made several film noirs from the female perspective. Many of them became prestigious regained favorites later, after receiving no respect at their release. Among them the last American film directed by Max Ophüls: 1949s The ruthless moment. Its female perspective presents unique challenges in a noir crime story and creates tension in the household.
The film is adapted from The empty wall, a novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding originally published in Ladies Home Journal in rates. Its story follows Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), a housewife who is desperately trying to prevent her nuclear family’s household from collapsing in the midst of murder, extortion and chaos.
Traveling from the coastal suburbs, Lucia takes the trip to Los Angeles in the first scene. She’s on a mission to keep the dingy middle-aged racket Darby (Shepperd Strudwick) from seeing his 17-year-old daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). When the possibility of a bribe comes up in the conversation, Darby considers leaving Bea alone. Lucia decides, however, that he is not worth the money, and instead promises to tell Bea how easily Darby would be willing to give up their love.
Of course, Bea refuses to believe what her mother tells her. But when she sneaks out to meet Darby in the family boat house that night, she confronts him with the bribe. He admits to accepting being paid off just because he is desperate for money and he actually would not have stopped seeing her.
She breaks down and feels stupid for thinking that someone like Darby would ever love her. In her anger, she hits him over the head and storms off to tell her mother that she was right all along. What Bea does not see are the consequences of her outburst. Darby, now disoriented and wounded, falls from the quay and plunges to his death. Back in the house, Lucia Bea promises she’ll never have to deal with a man like Darby again. But she does not know how true that promise is.
The next morning, Lucia finds Darby’s body lying on the beach. Without hesitation, she does what she knows she must do to protect her daughter. She drags the body into her boat and dumps him on a shore away from their home all alone. Just as she thinks she has freed her family from disaster, a mysterious Irishman named Donnelly arrives (James Mason) shows up at the house and demands money. Darby took out a loan from Donnelly and his business partner, and he used love letters between himself and Bea as collateral.
Now that Darby has turned up dead, they threaten to send the letters to the newspaper if Lucia is unable to hand over the $ 5,000. Donnelly inserts himself into Lucia’s life to blackmail her, but he falls in love with her in the process. His partner takes matters into his own hands to get the money from Lucia, but Donnelly kills him to protect her. He then flees with the body and crashes with his car to make it look like an accident.
Just before he dies, Donnelly admits Darby’s murder to free Lucia from any connection to the crimes that have made her week to hell. When she returns home, she must behave like the same woman she has always been and take care of her family again, but it is clear that she has changed forever and has no one to confide in.
Bennett takes on the mother character in The ruthless moment with ease, despite the fact that the role was unlike the roles she had played before. Throughout his very long career in Hollywood, Bennett was respected as a movie star, but not necessarily as an actress. She went through several stages, from the beautiful little blonde in the 1930s to a soap opera queen much later in her life.
When she took on the role of Lucia, Bennett had just cycled through the kind of roles we most associate her with. She was one of the best dark femme fatale actresses from 1940s film noir, in classics like Scarlet Street and That Woman in the window. This role was a big change for her, and required her to cut her beautiful brunette hair for a chaste short hairstyle that suits a mother.
But when you saw Bennett as Lucia, you would never guess that this was new territory for her as an actress. She plays the happy mother well and shows restraint when her character is on the verge of losing control of her entire life. She does not have the intensity that Joan Crawford has Mildred Pierce or other respected noir stars at the time, but Lucia does not need that. The straight face she maintains throughout the film is not a lack of depth, but the result of her being forced to suppress her feelings for the sake of her family. Bennett just gives a hint of the fear and hopelessness that Lucia goes through while remaining true to the character.
This restraint is what makes the final scene so rewarding. After seeing Donnelly murder a man and then talking to him before he also dies, Lucia finally allows herself to cry. She can not fully recover before she gets home, but soon after she wipes away her tears and has to regain her composure to talk to her husband on the phone while the family shouts around her. It’s an understated moment to end, but it says so much with so little.
The ruthless moment‘s focus on Lucia creates a unique set of exciting challenges compared to noirs that focus on men. She faces limitations that do not exist for men at this point in history, making it nearly impossible for her to escape blackmail. Drumming up $ 5,000 right away is something women just could not.
Lucia cannot withdraw large sums without her husband’s permission. She cannot take out a loan without her husband’s permission. All she can do is sell the only valuable thing that belongs to her, jewelry. Even then, she barely has enough money to get these men off her back. This presents a stressful story by using the unfair conditions that women dealt with every day.
And a man does not have to balance covering up a murder and maintaining a household at the same time as a female protagonist does. There is a claustrophobic tone to every scene she has in her home that is not a refuge for her. It is a place where everyone is dependent on her, bombarding her with requests and questions constantly. She never gets a moment of peace.
Ophüls effectively does these domestic scenes The ruthless moment so exciting through his direction. He insisted on having sweeping tracking images of Lucia throughout the film. These images were much more artistic – and more expensive – than the images of other low-budget women’s images. To the great annoyance of the rest of his crew, Ophüls’ decision paid off.
When Lucia returns home from her first trip to LA at the beginning of the film, the camera follows her as she wanders through the house. There is a spin to the shot that makes her world feel all-consuming. Ophüls pairs artistic images with these homely surroundings and characters in a way that validates the female perspective as artistic.
Appreciation of Ophüls’ direction and the artistic character of The ruthless moment did not happen when it was released in 1949, unfortunately. The reviews were unfavorable, the ticket numbers were eerie, and Ophüls got tired of Hollywood’s way of making movies. He returned to Europe and instructed what many consider to be his baroque masterpieces: Round (1950), Pleasure (1952), The earrings by Madame de … (1953), and Lola Montes (1955).
Ophül’s artistic value as a director came late, but his style has had a lasting impact on today’s prestigious filmmakers. Paul Thomas Anderson owes a lot to Ophüls and (admittedly) his characteristic long tracking shots, which were a big part of The ruthless moment. Similar shots are present in so many of Anderson’s films, including Magnolia, There will be blood, and Licorice pizza.
Ophüls, like so many other European directors in Hollywood during his studies, brought a unique style to American film. The fact that he used this style to tell women’s stories and give Joan Bennett a new kind of role to play the lead role in is something to appreciate today.
As for the film itself, it became clear as the years went by The ruthless moment represented 1949 and the following decade. Two years after the release, Joan Bennett’s husband, Walter Wangs, who also produced the film, shot her agent, Jennings Lang, after suspecting the two were having an affair. The incident became a huge scandal, and Bennett’s own turbulent home life became apparent to the world.
That story is as exciting as the film noirs that Bennett starred in, and the podcast series Love is a Crime breaks it down well with details about the production of The ruthless moment. Bennett was more attached to Lucia’s loneliness and sole responsibility to keep her family together than anyone thought she was doing at the time. Years later, her daughter Diana said this role was her mother’s favorite because it was like she was in real life.
The oppression, unavoidable responsibilities, and traumatic realities that women went through after World War II would not be widely represented in entertainment until years after. The ruthless moment was made. Ophüls’ film shows exactly how overwhelming motherhood was in America and within a serious genre usually reserved for male stories. Few movies capture real life as well as that, and it’s a crime that no one realized until much later.
Related topics: Beyond the Classics
Emily Kubincanek is a senior contributor to Film School Rejects and a resident classic Hollywood fan. When she’s not writing about old movies, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweet about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_
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