On Max Ophüls’s 1949 noir, The Reckless Moment.
What makes a thriller “domestic,” anyway? Broadly speaking, it takes place in a house. Domestic thrillers are horror stories about the emotional labor that maintains the private sphere going terribly awry; think of the way towel straightening and pantry rearranging become acts of violence in Sleeping with the Enemy, transforming Julia Roberts’s new home, at the climax, into an uncanny country where she’s always a stranger. Sleeping with the Enemy was released the same year as Susan Faludi’s book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, and while Faludi herself criticized nineties domestic thrillers for preying on women’s fears about their changing roles in a postfeminist world, it seems more accurate to say the films expressed those fears—many of them were, after all, based on novels and screenplays by women—much as post–Word War II film noir expressed anxieties about reintegrating men into the social order after what they had seen and done overseas.
In fact, nineties domestic thrillers have their precursors in the 1940s subgenres of melodramatic noir and women’s suspense that rose alongside more traditionally masculine postwar noir. Alfred Hitchcock’s films about murderous husbands and male family members in the early forties—Rebecca, Suspicion, and Shadow of a Doubt—kicked off a decade of domestic thrillers that invited noirish paranoia into the house, including George Cukor’s Gaslight, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, and Joseph Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number.
Perhaps the apex of these films is Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment, adapted in 1949 from an Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novel first published in Ladies’ Home Journal. Ophüls’s last Hollywood film before he returned to Europe to make a trio of baroque masterpieces, The Reckless Moment stars Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper, a housewife moved to superhuman acts of will to preserve the fragile sanctity of her middle-class home in a lakefront suburb of LA. Lucia’s husband isn’t violent, he’s just absent: helping to rebuild Europe after the war for reasons that seemingly have more to do with excitement than money, leaving a vacuum where middle-class manhood is supposed to live in the postwar suburban household. In the long-distance phone calls from Berlin that bracket the film, Lucia struggles to shield her husband from all knowledge of her difficulties with her son, teenage daughter, and doddering father-in-law. “If only David were older—or Father younger—but there’s no one—I have to handle it alone,” she starts to write to him, but crumples the letter and throws it away.
The film opens on Lucia handling it, driving furiously to LA to warn Darby, a seedy ex–art dealer who fairly reeks of grift, off her young daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). Lucia confronts Darby in a closed nightclub amid a forest of upended chair legs, shuddering at the thought of Bea in this perversely upside-down world. It’s too late, of course; Bea already talks like she’s half gangster’s moll (“When you’re seventeen today, you know what the score is”). “There’s nothing I won’t do to stop it,” Lucia tells Darby, talking not just about the relationship, but about the general tainting of her family.
She soon gets her chance to demonstrate this determination when Darby turns up dead on the family beach after a midnight meeting with Bea. Without a moment of hesitation, Lucia does what any good mother would do: she lifts Darby’s body off the anchor spike it’s impaled on, drags the body down the beach to the family motorboat, and ferries it over to the local swamp for dumping. It’s a desperate feat of not-in-my-backyard-ism performed with the supernatural strength of those heroic women who lift cars off children.
“She’s lucky to have a mother like you,” says Donnelly (James Mason), the soft-spoken Irish blackmailer who shows up with Bea’s love letters to Darby, intending to shake Lucia down. Lucia snaps back, “Everyone has a mother like me.”
If this is a sentimental ideal of motherhood, the film could hardly be less sentimental in dramatizing what it looks like in practice. Aside from corpse dumping, Lucia’s day-to-day dealings with her family require an intensity of emotional labor that the film never lets us forget. This is most visible in the design of the house itself, a series of labyrinthine boxes opening onto each other with shuttered doors and windows that are continually being opened and shut, children and dotards and the live-in maid Sybil (whose substantial emotional labor goes mostly unnoticed) popping out of them like jack-in-the-boxes at all the worst moments. It’s all held together by a giant central staircase, up and down which Lucia is perpetually running in her efforts to keep the family in their proper boxes, Ophuls’s famous tracking shots winding with her, shadows from the perpetually uplit balustrade throwing prison bars across her face. “You don’t know how a family can surround you at times,” Lucia breathes to Donnelly. “No, I don’t,” he says, already seduced.
If the first “reckless moment” is Lucia crossing into criminality to defend her family, the second finds Donnelly crossing into her world just as thoughtlessly, demonstrating the centripetal power of the domestic sphere, as if the house itself were a femme fatale. Desperate to get Donnelly out of her house—like a wacky neighbor, he just keeps dropping in—Lucia takes him on an errand to the drugstore, where she makes a phone call on Bea’s behalf, but runs out of change midway through. Panic-stricken, Lucia leaves the receiver dangling and winds her way through the drugstore to Donnelly, who’s been lurking noncommittally outside the door. “I need more change!” she barks, and, matching her unwavering trust in the family imperative beat for beat, he all but trips over himself following her back through the store, digging in his pockets for change, in his haste to give his blackmail victim money—even dropping literal dimes, a winking parody of the criminal life. His response is instinctive; it looks like they’ve been married for years. From this moment on, Donnelly acts as if hypnotized into husband-hood. Instead of shaking Lucia down, he hauls her groceries, gives her son advice on fixing up an old engine, even buys her a product to help curb her nasty smoking habit. (Father knows best!)
With Donnelly neutralized, his partner, Nagel, soon replaces him as the bad guy, a symbol of the perverse that perhaps hits closer to home for a woman whose husband insists on staying away. (“You have your family,” Donnelly says heavily, “I have my Nagel.”) But Nagel never feels as threatening as Donnelly’s own self-annihilating desire to insinuate himself into Lucia’s life, which presents her with a need she can never fulfill. The final smashup leaves Lucia’s family whole, but her sense of self permanently fractured, face to face with how her roles of wife, mother, daughter, and head of household have kept her running from room to room. When she finally collapses on her bed to cry, it’s her first moment of stillness in the film. Cue the ringing telephone—it’s Berlin, of course, but as we know, in a domestic thriller, the call is always coming from inside the house. “Some women marry houses,” wrote Anne Sexton. Others marry ghosts.
This is the fourth in Amy Gentry’s series about domestic thrillers. She’s the author of the thriller Good as Gone, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2016. Her writing on books and culture has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Salon, Fusion, and the Chicago Tribune, among others. Amy holds a doctorate in English and lives in Austin, Texas.