Lucia Harper (Bennett) goes to great lengths to warn her daughter, Bea (Geraldine Brooks), about the danger of dating an older and obviously sleazy man. Ignoring her mother's pleas, Bea goes to meet her boyfriend, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), but finds out that his scheming ways are true, so she hits him and runs away in shock.
The next morning, Lucia finds him dead on the beach, so in an act of rash reasoning, she decides to take her boat and dump his body.
Things aren't quite so simple, however. Darby owed money to some "business" men. Martin Donnelly (Mason) is one of them and blackmails Lucia.
This film is notable for being Max Ophuls' last American film. It is an adaptation of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's 1947 novel The Blank Wall, which was re-adapted in 2001 as The Deep End, with Tilda Swinton as the housewife and Goran Višnjić as the blackmailer who falls in love with her.
The Reckless Moment demonstrates the following tropes:
- Accidental Murder: Bea merely hits Darby, but he ends up falling and being impaled by an anchor.
- All for Nothing: All of Lucia's efforts to get the blackmail money are in vain when Donnelly decides that she no longer needs to pay him.
- Asshole Victim: Darby was better off dead.
- Bittersweet Ending: Donnelly dies in a car crash, but he protects Lucia by admitting to the murder. He does all of this because he fell in love with her.
- Big Fancy House: The Harper home.
- Donnelly blackmails Lucia with her daughter’s love letters to Darby in exchange for $5000.
- Nagel, Donnelly's partner, decides to blackmail her instead when Donnelly has a change of heart.
- Bratty Teenage Daughter: Bea. Oh, Bea.
- Chiaroscuro: It's a Film Noir! Great examples of this during the climactic scene in the boathouse.
- Disappeared Dad: Tom Harper has been gone for a very long time (three years during the war) and is currently working in Berlin.
- Disposing of a Body: Lucia finds Darby dead on the beach and dumps his body in a swamp.
- Film Noir: Of the classic period with a dash of melodrama.
- The '50s: Although the film was made in 1949, there's 50s post-war malaise all over it.
- Grey-and-Gray Morality: Donnelly says that even if the man that the police picked up for Darby's murder didn't actually kill him, it doesn't matter because the man was a scumbag anyway.
- Housewife: Lucia feels trapped within her own family as the matriarch that holds everything down while her husband is away. This eventually stretches her nerves to a breaking point when Bea accidentally kills her boyfriend.
- Idiot Ball: Bea may have hit Darby, but his death seems mostly accidental. He fell over and landed on an anchor. Yet Lucia decides to go hide the body in broad daylight.
- I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Donnelly dies, confesses to the murder of Darby even if he didn't do it, just to save the woman he loves from pain and misery.
- Jerkass: Darby makes it very clear to Bea that he only dated her to get to her family's wealth.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Donnelly. He says that meeting Lucia made him want to change into a better man.
- Love at First Sight: Donnelly falls in love with Lucia almost immediately.
- Love Redeems: Donnelly dies for Lucia and saves her family from being torn apart.
- Mama Bear: Lucia does whatever she can to protect Bea from harm. And her family by extension.
- Money Is Not Power: At least for women during The '40s and The '50s. Although Lucia isn't a jerk, she is part of a wealthy upper-class family. However, she can't use this wealth to help her get blackmail money because of her position. She needs her husband's signature (read: permission) for everything, she doesn't have collateral (therefore, she doesn't own anything) to get a loan from a loaning institution, and her valuables aren't worth much. She's powerless even with all her wealth.
- Murder Is the Best Solution: Donnelly kills his partner to stop him from continuing to blackmail Lucia.
- The Stoic: Lucia.
- Sunshine Noir: The film takes place in a town 50 miles from LA.
- Ungrateful Bastard: Mostly Bea. Her mother has gone through a lot to cover up her recklessness and mistakes without one word of gratitude.