When Blackmailers Go Soft

James Mason shows Joan Bennett some incriminating letters. Image: AllPosters

True Story: We (as in, yours truly) used to work for a finance company, where we collected delinquent loan payments.

The stories we heard! When people do not want to pay, they talk. Some have tales of Heroic Deeds, while others try to negotiate an alternate deal. (One person offered to write a customer survey in lieu of payment.)

We were reminded of those glory days when we watched The Reckless Moment (1949), starring Joan Bennett as an upper-middle-class mother living the dream on the California coast, along with the fab James Mason as a blackmailer.

You read that right: Blackmail. So how, exactly, does a Respectable mother become embroiled in such a scandal?

When Bennett learns her college-age daughter (Geraldine Brooks) is dating a much older man (Shepperd Strudwick), she confronts Strudwick and tells him to Stay Away. Naturally, this only increases the attraction between Strudwick and Brooks, and they arrange a nighttime rendezvous in the family’s boathouse.

Alas! An argument ensues in said boathouse: Brooks hits Strudwick over the head with a flashlight and runs home, while Strudwick staggers after her. But the poor slob crashes through a railing and falls several feet onto an anchor resting on the beach below.

Bennett, being the type of mother who cleans up everyone’s Messes, disposes the body and grills Brooks until she’s satisfied the girl has told no one else about the love affair.

Except.

A stranger (James Mason) arrives at her home the following day, wishing to speak with Bennett. He produces a stack of letters Brooks has written to Strudwick, the price of which is $25,000. If Bennett doesn’t pay for them, they’ll be given to the police.

You see, the police have found Strudwick’s body and are hunting for a murderer.

Bennett tells Geraldine Brooks (seated) not to worry. Image: Flickers in Time

The Reckless Moment is Joan Bennett’s film; all events orbit around her. Because husband is overseas, she’s left to handle Everything – especially this predicament. She doesn’t have access to $25,000 in cash, and she scrambles to pawn jewellery, obtain a loan, et cetera.

Yet the film would be incomplete without Mason’s villain, a no-nonsense man who undergoes a remarkable, almost unbelievable transformation.

When first we meet Mason-as-blackmailer, we’re nervous for Bennett. Here is a handsome, well-dressed man with no small amount of charm. (Bennett’s father-in-law invites him to dinner!)

But he’s also menacing. As he meets with Bennett in her living room, he begins reading Brooks’s letters aloud, as though it pains him to read such cloying drivel.

It’s a kick to Bennett’s guts. Never mind the $25,000 price tag, here are her daughter’s innermost feelings, read with mocking cruelty.

Bennett does her best to broker a lower price and/or a deadline extension, but Mason leaves her little room for negotiating. She’s in a Very Bad situation.

“Where’s the money already!” Image: Film Society Lincoln Centre

However, there is a Wild Card in this film, and it’s not Bennett or her daughter. It’s Mason.

As he becomes more involved with Bennett and her family, his conscience starts to Kick In, and he becomes more sympathetic to Bennett’s plight. The blackmail isn’t his idea; he’ll help her through this; her daughter will be safe.

He’s also, we think, a little in love with Bennett.

Meanwhile, an arrest is made for Strudwick’s murder, but Bennett doesn’t want an innocent man going to jail. Mason, revealing his struggle with his conscience, argues the accused man is guilty of a hundred other things: So what if he goes to jail for this?

It’s an unlikely crisis of character, considering his Stock and Trade, but Mason’s performance makes it credible. Such a transformation would seem absurd in lesser-skilled hands.

The Reckless Moment does have a few plot holes, and an ending that’s a bit much, but we heartily recommend it. Nothing beats James Mason as a blackmailer striving to become a decent human being.

This post is part of the JAMES MASON BLOGATHON hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.

The Reckless Moment: starring Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks. Directed by Max Ophüls. Written by Henry Garson & Robert W. Soderberg. Columbia Pictures, 1949, B&W, 82 mins.

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29 comments

  1. It’s true. It is worth putting up a hundred plot holes just to watch Joan Bennett and James Mason do their thing in The Reckless Moment. Mason is indeed given an interesting character to play here and his artistry goes a long way to convincing us of his change of heart.

    Confession: I tend to get a little distracted looking at the set through “House Hunters” eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hate the thought of juries convict based on someone looking guilty. Yikes. But, then again, that is the message of movies like “12 Angry Men”.

      I’ve never served on a jury. Have you? If so, what kind of experience was it for you?

      Like

  2. I too like this movie a lot, and its remake, The Deep End (2001), starring Tilda Swinton (yay!). They’re both based on a terrific Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novel, The Blank Wall (1947), which I’d wholeheartedly recommend to you.

    Many thanks for this evocative account of The Reckless Moment, Ruth. As you say, James Mason as a blackmailer is a performance not to be missed!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As I was reading your review, the plot reminded me of a 2001 film called THE DEEP END with Tilda Swinton as a mother and Goran Visnjic as the mysterious stranger who eventually helps her. So, I looked it up and, hey, it’s a remake of THE RECKLESS MOMENT! I quite liked THE DEEP END, so I’ll have to check this original version.

    Liked by 1 person

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