Holiday Film Noir: "The Reckless Moment" (1949) starring James Mason & Joan Bennett

This splendidly nuanced work has emerged as one of the standouts of the noir cycle…

Ophuls… drew from Bennett her most natural, believable performance. She has never been better.

Near perfect, this is a marvellous and magical non stop emotional thriller with the camera moving with such fluidity we can only stare in wonder.

James Mason is great as a refined crook who suddenly finds himself feeling empathy for others. Can’t think of too many actors who could pull this off…

Traumatic as Lucia’s experience is, Donnelly’s devotion to her connects Lucia with the love and sexuality that may be missing from her marriage.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett, then 39 y.o.) is an upper middle-class wife/mother w/ an energetic teen son and stubborn/beautiful 17 y.o. daughter. Lucia’s husband, Tom, has to go away on business to Berlin (during the holidays). The family lives in an ocean-front home in Balboa, 50 miles south of LA. Bea, who is an art student, is involved w/ an older man, Ted Darby. He is sleazy and lives in a sketchy hotel in LA. When Lucia realizes what’s going on, she warns the man to stay away from Bea (who is underage). Ted ends up dead on the beach, not far from the Harper’s house. Lucia thinks Bea was responsible, so quickly takes action to protect her daughter (as well as her family, respectability, and lifestyle).

When the dead body of the man is discovered by police, they suspect murder! Lucia is visited by an Irishman, Martin Donnelly (James Mason, then just 40 y.o. in his third American movie). He has love letters written by Bea to Darby; these could be damaging if turned over to police or the press. The price for the letters is $5,000 (which Lucia doesn’t have on hand). Donnelly’s boss Nagle wants payment- fast. Soon, the crooked man finds himself empathizing w/ – something you don’t expect- and developing feelings for the housewife.

She’s lucky to have a mother like you. -Donnelly comments

Everyone has a mother like me! You probably had one, too! -Lucia retorts

This is a tight, tense, and quite effective movie (which I learned about when browsing online through holiday classics playing at AFI). It’s an unique blend of melodrama and noir; you can see it (free) on YouTube. The director, Max Ophuls, is an immigrant from Germany; he worked in several European cities before coming to the U.S. in 1941. Often times, the outsider has a fresh take on something that others take at face value. Mason here may remind you of Gregory Peck (tall w/ high cheekbones and dark hair), BUT w/ potentially dangerous vibes. IMO, to be an effective leading man, a actor MUST be able to project a hint of danger. Some actors didn’t stray (or perhaps get chances to stray) from the “gentleman” role. Though Mason is British, his Irish accent is very good. Bennett does a great job- her character is quick-thinking, determined, and tough as a mother. Lucia gets drawn into the seedy side of life, much to her dismay and discomfort, but she has the guts to go there.

Hitchcock Meets Steinbeck: “Lifeboat” (1944) starring Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, & Hume Cronyn

Six men and three women – against the sea and each other. -One of the taglines from the movie

…this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn’t busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.

Given the time when this was made… it’s hardly surprising that it’s filled with propaganda. Usually, this annoys me; but here it’s done really well, and the propaganda is actually worked into the story instead of just being there to rally the allied population at the time. Hitchcock turns this into a twist, and the way that he parodies the war on the whole on just a small lifeboat in the middle of the big ocean is great. 

-Excerpts from IMDB review

In the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, a passenger ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle where both are sunk. The survivors gather in one of the lifeboats. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places: an international journalist- Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a rich businessman- Charles Rittenhouse (William Hull), a young/Midwestern nurse- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a steward- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), a humble British sailor- Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and a hard-edged engineer from Chicago- John Kovac (John Hodiak), along w/ his affable buddy- Gus Smith (William Bendix). Stanley and Joe help bring a young Englishwoman carrying a baby in her arms onto the boat- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Trouble starts when they pull another man out of the water- Willi (Walter Slezak)- who turns out to be from the U-boat (German). Some of the survivors want to thrown him back, but others intercede. Connie speaks fluent German, so she can communicate with this man.

It all started when Hitchcock wanted a challenge for himself. He commissioned American author John Steinbeck to write a story based on an idea he had for a drama about people in a lifeboat. Steinbeck’s work was adapted by Jo Swerling; Ben Hecht was also a collaborator in the screenplay. This movie (which cost a little over $1.5M) was shot entirely on a restricted set; the boat was secured in a large studio tank. Hitchcock, striving for realism, insisted that the boat always be moving. The harsh conditions of the shoot took its toll: actors were soaked with water and oil, which led to illness and injury. Cronyn once almost drowned and cracked some ribs! Production was halted twice to allow for recovery of the cast. The famed director insisted on shooting in sequence (which is rarely done), which meant most of the cast had to be paid for the entire shoot. When studio head- Darryl F. Zanuck- objected, Hitch insisted this was necessary to shape the unconventional narrative.

Wow, this movie is impressive- I wonder why I never heard of it before! Like all great films, it takes you on a journey. Hitch made a lot of great films. Lifeboat is lesser-known; I just discovered it last week (thanks to a brief review on YouTube). Hitch succeeds in scene setting and drawing the audience into the story. The way he uses his camera aboard the lifeboat keeps the audience plugged into the plight of the characters. The plot is simple, yet a great premise for a thriller. Its a study of how difference of opinion can create tensions, and how people can deal with those tensions.

The characters are all distinct and each actor does well w/ their role. During filming, several crew members noted that Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Hitch commented, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hairdressing.” LOL! Bankhead (then in her early 40s and a big star) had a style which was later adopted by an younger actress- Bette Davis. Bankhead joked that “All About Eve” should’ve been titled “All About Me” after that hit film came out. In the first scene, we see Connie w/o a hair out of place, wearing a mink coat, made-up, and smoking a cigarette. She looks more annoyed at the run in her stocking than the destruction surrounding her! Connie conveys toughness also, but little by little, her true self comes out as she faces the harsh reality.

It is rare to see such a meaty role for a black American at this time period; Lee even wrote some of his own lines for Joe. Once the film was completed, Steinbeck (who was very progressive) objected to the tone Hitch used w/ Joe in certain scenes. Lee had also acted on Broadway in a lead role in Anna Lucasta. Before he became an actor, he worked as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was also a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of actor Paul Robeson (considered to be a Renaissance Man in his time). My favorite scene in Lifeboat is when Kovac asks Joe for his opinion on what to do w/ the German enemy. Joe replies simply he didn’t realize he had any vote or say in the matter! This was 20+ yrs before the Voting Rights Act.

Early Hitchcock Movie: “The 39 Steps” (1935) starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll

An unassuming Canadian bachelor, Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), living in London tries to help a mysterious woman w/ a German accent, Miss Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who turns out to be a double agent. She is killed in Hannay’s hotel room, he is accused of the murder, and goes on the run to save himself. With a map and some details (provided by Miss Smith), he also hopes to stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information. He travels by train to Scotland, hoping not to be noticed by his fellow passengers and the police. The papers are all covering the incident, of course, and some people are bound to be intrigued by the details. When Hannay pops into a car w/ a pretty blonde woman, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), he begs her to help him. As the police approach, he grabs her and kisses her (pretending like their newlyweds). She is not having it, so tells the police that she has never seen this man before.

In Scotland, Hannay travels on foot for some miles, looking for a certain town. He comes across a farmer in a very rural area, Mr. Crofter, who says he can stay overnight at this little house. The wife, who is much younger and mismatched w/ her gruff husband, is played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft (one of the most respected actresses of her time). When Mr. Crofter is out, Hannay and Mrs. Crofter chat about life in London, and she develops a crush on him. Later, when he tells her about his plight, she is very empathetic. After her husband gets jealous, she helps Hannay escape. The local cops are close on his trail. Hannay finds the house of a wealthy/powerful British man, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), just in time for a Sunday lunch. He runs across Pamela (again), and more improbable adventures ensue!

Some critics and viewers consider this to be Hitchcock’s most economical and best film. The 39 Steps is a romantic adventure (Hannay and Pamela share moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a rom com) with the usual Hitchcock humor; there is also a lot of metaphor and symbolism. Many of Hitchcock’s typical themes are here: marriage (of different types), human relationships, and types and levels of deception. It’s well-written and each character has a distinct look, attitude, and personality. The plot provides suspense, comedy, and drama in a rather short period of time.

You can watch the full movie (for free) here:

Pushover (1954) starring Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak, Philip Carey, & E.G. Marshall

This film noir is considered a kind of sequel- in spirit- to Double Indemnity. Both movies feature blonde femme fatales, temptation, and (of course) the lure of easy money. It opens w/ a bank heist where over $200,000 is stolen by a pair of armed men in plain clothes. After a late movie, Lona McLane (Kim Novak- just 20 y.o. in her first role), can’t start her car. She gets help from Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray), who was also alone at the movies. After her car is taken to a local garage, Lona decides to go home w/ Paul, and have an affair. A few days later, Paul reports to his boss’ office- we learn that he’s an undercover police detective! In order to catch the man who planned the robbery, Paul has been keeping track of his girlfriend- Lona.

The boss, Lt. Eckstrom, is played by E.G. Marshall- a face recognizable to movie fans of several generations. He had a long/successful career as a character actor, incl. as a juror in 12 Angry Men (w/ Henry Fonda) and the billionaire philanthropist in Absolute Power (w/ Clint Eastwood). Paul’s younger partner in the stakeout is Rick McAllister, played by a tall/deep-voiced actor named Philip Carey. He later became known as Asa Buchanan- patriarch of one of the families on the soap opera One Life to Live. Wow, I never knew he was so handsome as a young man! After a few moments, I recognized his name and that voice.

Rick (re: Lona): New car, mink coat, no clocks in the joint… probably the story of her life.

Paul: You just don’t like women, Rick.

Rick: What keeps you single?

Paul: Maybe I like ’em too much.

Rick: I’ve seen all kinds since we joined the force… B-girls, hustlers, blackmailers, shoplifters, drunks. You know, I think I’d still be married if I could find a half-honest woman. Must be a few of ’em around.

Paul: Watch yourself! Those few might just be smarter!

It doesn’t take Lona too long to discover that Paul is a cop; she’s mad and says they are through. Paul, Rick, and another cop stakeout Lona’s apt, waiting for her man to call or (maybe) visit. During the lull times, Rick watches Lona’s neighbor through his binoculars. This is Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone), a nurse who is always busy and in a cheerful mood.

MacMurray does a fine job as a good, but weary, middle-aged guy who is emotionally vulnerable once he meets Novak. The femme fatale is not a master manipulator; she resents being the trophy of a criminal. Is their hope to their relationship? Rick and Ann seem to almost live in a separate world; their relationship starts off shady, but grows hopeful once you see their chemistry. The atmosphere created in this movie also keeps you interested. The filmmakers are good at setting the mood; we see L.A. mostly at night when there are shadows, streets lit by large lamps, and a few rooftop scenes. This isn’t any fresh territory for Hollywood, but I stayed interested, wondering how far Paul would go.

Rewatch: Notorious (1946) starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, & Claude Rains

Following the conviction of her (German) father for treason, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, in her early 30s) takes to heavy drinking and partying. One night, she meets a stranger at her bungalow in Miami (a party crasher). They drink long into the night (after her pals leave or fall asleep drunk), and she insists on going on a drive. When Alicia’s car is stopped for speeding and swerving on the highway, the stranger shows the cop his ID. The cop salutes him and quickly drives off, issuing her no ticket. Alicia gets very angry and combative when she realizes that her passenger is a government agent, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant).

The next morning, he reveals that the feds have been bugging her house for 3 mos; she shared the place with her father. We also discover that Alicia is patriotic (she had an American mother and adopted the US as her homeland) and detests the doings of her father. The feds want Alicia to spy on some of her father’s old (Nazi) friends operating in Brazil. They land in Rio, Alicia quits drinking, and over a week, she and Devlin develop feelings for each other. She says “I love you” to him, but he doesn’t say those exact words back. They plan to have a romantic chicken dinner together (in her apartment), but Devlin is called away.

When Devlin goes to see his boss, Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), he learns details about the mission which has been chosen for Alicia. His heart sinks- she will have to seduce a wealthy and powerful man, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who used to have feelings for her. The feds seem to think this will be an easy task for a woman (“not a lady”) like Alicia, who is “notorious” not only for her father’s crimes, but her wild lifestyle.

Wow, who knew Alfred Hitchcock could do romance this well!? It helps that he has megastar (and gorgeous) co-leads in Grant and Bergman who help to anchor this story. When these two actors are close- it’s like sparks are flying onscreen! Bergman is playing against type here (as some critics have noted). She looks tired, hungover, and disheveled the morning after she meets Devlin. Grant is quite reined in (as his character demands), so you need to focus on his eyes and the (small) expressions of his face. If you’ve only seen younger (he’s 42 here) and comedic Grant movies, you’re esp. in for a treat.

Hitch does a lot of things which reveal him to be “the master of suspense”- building tension w/ music, unique takes on close-ups, playing w/ shadows, and the trope of the controlling mother (played here by a formidable-looking Austrian theater actress- Leopoldine Konstantin). Even mundane domestic moments in the Sebastian mansion are made suspenseful, thanks to the director’s choices. The screenplay (which is lean, yet still gripping) by Ben Hecht scored an Academy Award nomination. Character is revealed not only through what is said, but w/ tone and action. Some embraces, kisses, and laughs conceal the truth, others reveal the truth. After all, Alicia and Devlin hide their love for each other, b/c of the mission and- like ordinary people- b/c they’re afraid of getting hurt.