Crime Novel Remembered: Everywoman Heroine & Bourgeois Values + 'Straight & Gay' Movie Versions

by Anthony Slide
Crime Novel The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding: cover-up more serious than the crimeCrime novel The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. While her husband is away during World War II, housewife Lucia Holley – the sort of “Everywoman” who looks great in a two-piece bathing suit – does whatever it takes to protect the feeling of “normality” in her bourgeois, suburban household. The Blank Wall is a classic depiction of an attempted cover-up being much more serious than the actual crime.

Sound bites: Remembering the classic crime novel 'The Blank Wall' and its two movie adaptations – 'The Reckless Moment' & 'The Deep End'

Crime novel writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1889–1955) is not a name familiar to many, and yet Raymond Chandler described her as “the top suspense writer of them all. She doesn't pour it on and make you feel irritated. Her characters are wonderful; and she has a sort of inner calm which I find very attractive.”

Holding has been identified as “The Godmother of Noir” and, more recently, as one of “The Grandmothers of Gone Girl.” A New York native, married to a British diplomat, Holding wrote romantic novels in the 1920s and then graduated to suspense/detective fiction from 1929–1953, with her most prominent work, still in print today, being The Blank Wall, first published in 1947 by Simon & Schuster and as a Ladies' Home Journal story.

'The Blank Wall': Mid-20th century crime novel with unusual white bourgeois heroine & black female ally

As a crime novel, The Blank Wall is important in that its central character is a woman, Lucia Holley, described by novelist/critic Lisa Scottoline as “not a Superwoman but an Everywoman who empowers herself through the occasional pep talk.”

She takes care of her family while her husband is at war, and, in particular, deals with her 17-year-old daughter's relationship with an older man. That relationship leads to manslaughter and blackmail.

Lucia's only real friend in helping her handle the situation is the “colored” housekeeper Sibyl, who transcends the role usually played by an African-American in fiction of the period, becoming Lucia's equal and her closest ally (“she loved and trusted Sibyl without reservation”).

When The Blank Wall was adapted for the screen in 1949, Sibyl's role was equally important, and it seems positively awesome today to view a film from this period in which an African-American woman is presented as being on equal terms as that of her white employer. Of course, the industry being as it was, Frances Williams playing the housekeeper was not considered worthy enough to receive screen credit.[1]

Family values & blackmail

The storyline of The Blank Wall, in the simplest of terms, has the daughter's boyfriend accidentally being killed in part thanks to the actions of the young woman. She is implicated in his death, although not actually responsible for it.

The mother hides the body, but letters her daughter had written to the boyfriend fall into the hands of a blackmailer. The initial blackmailer enlists the help of a second man, Martin Donnelly, who is attracted to Lucia; he retrieves the letters for her and, to protect Lucia and her family, confesses to having killed the boyfriend.

Censors vs. 'heroizing of a criminal'

Obviously, there were problems raised by the Production Code Administration (PCA), which pointed out to producer Walter Wanger (Foreign Correspondent, Joan of Arc) in February 1948 that the novel contained “a little too much sentimentalizing or an actual heroizing of a criminal.”

Initially, the PCA put the project aside because of the “awaiting arrival of a baby in the Wanger household.” However, before the July birth of a baby girl to Wanger and his actress wife Joan Bennett, who was to co-star in the film, a first-draft script had been submitted to the PCA.

In April 1948, it responded: “Your feminine lead takes it upon herself to throw a shield of protection around her family by activities which are outside the law, if not definitely unlawful … it seems to us that some provision should be made for Lucia to make a settlement with the police.”

Ultimately, there were few final problems with the script, and a PCA Seal was issued in July 1949 for The Blank Wall, which for its release in November of that year was retitled The Reckless Moment.

The Reckless Moment Joan Bennett: Max Ophüls' classic based on crime novel about motherly devotion and bourgeois conformismThe Reckless Moment with Joan Bennett. A mix of film noir and melodrama about motherly devotion, bourgeois conformism, and “what lurks beneath,” Max Ophüls' 1949 near-classic – and box office flop – based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's crime novel The Blank Wall is notable as one of the German filmmaker's four Hollywood movies and for featuring veteran Joan Bennett in her last role as a major film noir star. Ophüls' other three American films: The Exile (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), and Caught (1949).

'The Reckless Moment': Max Ophüls' fluid camera inspires the poet in James Mason

Joan Bennett, by now a leading lady in the film noir genre, plays Lucia (now given the surname Harper) in The Reckless Moment, with James Mason cast as Donnelly. The setting is the middle-class resort community of Balboa, California, with few of the obvious images or screen techniques associated with film noir.[2]

Making his last of four films in Hollywood is director Max Ophüls. Also in 1949, James Mason had worked with him on Caught, and was familiar with Ophüls' fondness for fluid camera movements, very evident here – so much so that Mason wrote a verse on the subject:

I think I know the reason why
Producers tend to make him cry.
Inevitably they demand
Some stationary set-ups, and
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor dear Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again.

'The Reckless Moment' reviews: Unprincipled heroine & self-indulgent youth

The Reckless Moment was relatively well received, with The Hollywood Reporter (Oct. 12, 1949) praising the performances and the direction, but finding the story “rather uneven.” Daily Variety (Oct. 12, 1949), for its part, described the film as “a tense melodrama, moody and suspenseful enough to give a reasonably good account of itself in most playdates.”

In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther complained that the heroine and the film itself were unprincipled, encouraging self-indulgent young people in moral irresponsibility to which their parents could become willing accessories. Luckily, Crowther was long gone when Hollywood paid a second visit to The Blank Wall.

The Deep End Tilda Swinton: crime novel adaptation added homosexuality to crime cover-up and blackmail mixThe Deep End with Tilda Swinton. The most recent cinematic adaptation of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's crime novel The Blank Wall, The Deep End changes the gender of the heroine's teenage child, thus adding homosexuality and related prejudices – and, possibly, a bit of sexual orientation fluidity – to the crime cover-up and blackmail mix.

'The Deep End' & homosexual panic of sorts: Early 21st century reboot of mid-20th century crime novel & bourgeois values

The year was 2001 and The Blank Wall's new adaptation, The Deep End, was written and directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee. The setting now was Tahoe City, California, and the anti-heroine, played by Tilda Swinton, was renamed Margaret Hall.

While the basic story and premise remained the same, there were two major differences. In The Deep End, it was not a daughter who was in a sexual relationship with an older man, but a teenage son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker); and the mother was not being blackmailed with letters, but rather with tapes of her son and his boyfriend (Josh Lucas) having sex.

To a large extent, it might be argued that the events that follow the accidental death of the older man are in part because the mother is not willing to openly face her son's homosexuality. As with the original novel, the middle-class milieu could not be disturbed or weakened by the grim reality of life. Goran Visnjic handles the Donnelly character, now renamed Alek Spera.

Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times described The Deep End as “a tidy story of polish and sophistication.” Other critics were less enthusiastic, finding it dull and pretentious.

But then, leading lady Tilda Swinton does somehow always seem to carry an air of pretension about her, regardless of how good – or, for that matter, great – an actress she is.

Post-World War II crime novel gets another 21st century adaptation

The Blank Wall was last adapted as a BBC Radio Four Drama on “Woman's Hour,” and was first heard on Oct. 9, 2006.

Barbara Barnes played Lucia and John Lynch was Donnelly, under the direction of Viv Beeby.

Frances Williams

[1] Frances Williams (1905–1995), also known as Frances E. Williams, is a major figure in the fight for African-American rights in regard to the entertainment industry.

Williams was the first black American to run for the California State Assembly on the Progressive Ticket; she served on the boards of the Screen Actors Guild, Actors Equity, the Negro Actors Guild, and the National Negro Labor Council, and was heavily involved in the production of Salt of the Earth (1954) – directed and written by two members of the Hollywood Ten, respectively Herbert J. Biberman (Meet Nero Wolf, The Master Race) and Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun, 5 Fingers).

As found on the IMDb, besides The Reckless Moment, the usually uncredited Frances Williams could be seen on the big screen in George Sidney's musical Show Boat (1951), the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), and the Steve Martin comedy The Jerk (1979).

Williams also made about 20 television appearances, notably in a recurring role in the sitcom Frank's Place (1987–1988).

[2] The Reckless Moment was written by Henry Garson and Robert W. Soderberg, from a Mel Dinelli and Robert E. Kent adaptation of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's tale. Geraldine Brooks plays Joan Bennett's willful daughter in the film.


Raymond Chandler quote re: crime novel writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding via Persephone Books.

The Blank Wall cover: Pocket Books / Simon & Schuster.

Image of Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment, Max Ophüls' 1949 film version of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's crime novel The Blank Wall: Columbia Pictures.

Image of Tilda Swinton in The Deep End, David Siegel and Scott McGehee' 2001 film version of the classic mid-20th century crime novel The Blank Wall: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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