Lucia Harper (Joan Benett) lives with her family just outside of Los Angeles, on the coast, and until now her biggest worry has been the fact that her husband has been away on business for so long, but recently her teenaged daughter Bee (Geraldine Brooks) has given her concern. This is because Bee has been seeing a man who not only is much older than she is, but someone Lucia views as completely unsuitable due to his essentially sleazy and exploitative nature. She has made up her mind, her daughter must stop seeing him immediately, and she is prepared to offer him money to make this happen. As it turns out, that won't be necessary...
No, Lucia can simply have him killed instead. OK, that's not exactly what happens, but that overwhelming sense of guilt is what informs Bennett's character even if she has not actually committed murder. What occurs is that the boyfriend goes to visit Bee at the family home, thereby underlining the invasive air of his presence, threatening to upset the carefully sustained middle class equilibrium of the Harpers. When he is there in the boathouse, he manhandles the girl to the extent that she whacks him over the head with a torch and he accidentally stumbles into the water, where he drowns.
Lucia doesn't cotton onto what has happened until the following morning and discovers the boyfriend's body washed up on the beach - if she thought she had strife before, then that's nothing compared to what she has to go through from now on. In a sequence which neatly illustrates the difficulty of getting rid of a body - Lucia even accidentally stabs the corpse in the back with an anchor, the incrimination of her closes in, despite the fact that she hasn't actually killed anyone and is covering up for her daughter, all for the sake of ensuring life goes on as it has before. Naturally, she finds that she can never go back after this disruption.
The discovery of the boyfriend is revealed by the newspapers, and it looks as if Lucia has got away with it, though there is a mystery man who arrived when she was out and is waiting for her in her home - again, these upsetters invite themselves into the area where the heroine should feel at her safest. This time, the man is Donnelly, a loan shark played by James Mason making inroads into stardom outwith the British Isles, and sporting an unsteady Irish accent into the bargain. He knows what Lucia has done, and so does his gangster boss, so now they want a large sum of money to guarantee their silence. She is horrified, but cannot see any way out of her predicament and has to pay up.
But a curious thing takes place, as Donnelly comes to sympathise with his victim, and begins to work out a way to help her out. It is significant that Mr Harper is only a distant presence on the end of the telephone line, and the film could be seen from some angles as a sexist take on the fact that once her man is out of the way and unable to look after her, Lucia's life goes to pot. Yet from another angle, she could be doing her best to preserve the status quo she is so slavishly devoted to, and emerging as having steel beneath that outward fragility, after all she doesn't take her problems lying down. Although Donnelly's outsider character never had a hope of being welcomed into the cosy existence enjoyed by the Harpers, you do not get the sense that Lucia can so easily return to how things used to be, and only director Max Ophüls' rather slack handling of the tension lets the film down. He does have that way with the camera which redeems it, though. Music by Hans Salter.