Monday, September 5, 2011

A Woman's Secret (Nicholas Ray, 1949)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

A Woman's Secret feels like a test run for its maker. It presages the following year's far more sturdy and aesthetically adveturous Born to Be Bad in its plot elements and noir-tinctured melodrama. Yet if the film looks forward to Ray's career to come, it also represents a step backwards for the man whose raw energy made They Live By Night one of the emotive of noirs. A Woman's Secret (a misnomer, as there's no real mystery in this movie), is too buttoned down, too reminiscent of better movies made before and since, to make much of an impact for anyone save Ray completists.

Herman J. Mankiewicz's script conveys his caustic brand of wit, but his screenplay bizarrely seems a first draft of his brother Joseph's superior treatment of All About Eve, which makes pointed satire out of the broader showbiz melancholy seen here. But the flashback structure he used to unravel the life of Charles Foster Kane works better to contextualize and empathize with a character. As he tries to string out a series of self-serving recollections from truth-twisting suspects and lawyers, Mankiewicz fails to maintain any suspense, and by the time a key clue unlocks the story, the narrative has moved in such a disjointed, uninterested fashion that one is hard-pressed to care. This is the only film I can think of that can begin with a woman shooting another woman and still feel pedestrian. That is is a Nicholas Ray film makes its zero-Kelvin stagnation all the more upsetting.

The alleged shooter in question is Marion Washburn (Maureen O'Hara), a has-been singer who lived vicariously through her discovery, Susan (Gloria Grahame). Susan announces her intention to quit, and when Marion follows her off-screen, a gunshot is soon heard. Marion confesses, but obviously this cannot be all, as we still have 82 minutes to go. Flashbacks explain not only Susan's discovery but the lives of Marion and her piano player Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) as they intertwine around this limited but ambitious star whose Nowheresville brightness makes her as appealing as it does dim and prone to mistakes. Grahame's singing is limp, but her presence turns her expressionless face into the ultimate come-on of the Madonna. Where Eve Harrington climbed over bodies to get to the top, Susan enjoys the life of fame less and less as she becomes increasingly exposed to it, but that just won't do for either Marion or Luke.

Ironically, Susan's emotional breakdown from the pressure of manipulation has less humanity than the scheming evils of All About Eve. Mankiewicz's inert script soon slows even the charm of his wit, and not even Melvyn Douglas' refined know-it-all can inject life into this foregone conclusion. Following the nighttime desires of They Live By Night and the social criticism of Knock on Any Door, Ray wants to get at more interior concerns, to dig at the emotional states behind closed doors and bourgeois parlors. In theory, this should be a significant stepping stone for Ray, who would devote almost the entirety his career afterwards to subverting and deconstruction suburban middle-class domesticity. In practice, however, the film still feels like it wants solely to be a whydunit that puts far too much confidence in the drawing power of its narrative.

This is not to say that the film suffers for being cold. The following year's Born to Be Bad—a film that would line up with far more parallels with All About Eve—is almost glacial in its walled-off, unevolving emotions. But that film nevertheless showed Ray's wicked side, and its ironic edge showed a filmmaker sorting out what he wanted to say about the true worth of our system of values in physical and mental interiors. He just hadn't figured out how to subsume it into a passionate narrative yet. A Woman's Secret, on the other hand, wants to be passionate, wants to make us care and to be invested in its final twist. Yet after seeing a few of the director's compromised misfires and other intriguing but uneven efforts, I was most troubled to finally come across something unique: the first utterly dull Nicholas Ray film.


  1. I tackled this one to, and I just wanted to add that I do think there was a little bit of "Ray passion" in O' Hara's inner conflict. Really, it just comes through in the scene before the shooting, and one of the flashbacks that shows what may have happened. I think Ray tried to convey O'Hara's inner torture (her failed career, her need to control Gloria, her anger at the world), but there were precious few moments to exhibit this. However, I do think there were some impressive camera and lighting stuff to convey this in the two short scenes I mentioned.

  2. Yeah, there are some fitful moments here and there, but as you say, not enough to build a consistent emotional base. It's a shame too. I think the subject material was pretty fertile ground for Ray; it could have allowed him to apply his bleak Romanticism to Hollywood itself. I think if it had come along later his career after he started getting interference, it would have been a wildly different movie.