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Tag Archives: Nicholas Ray

A Woman’s Secret (March 5, 1949)

A Woman's Secret
A Woman’s Secret (1949)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
RKO Radio Pictures

A Woman’s Secret is the third Nicholas Ray film I’ve reviewed on this blog, but it was the second film he directed.

Ray completed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO wasn’t sure how to market it. It premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.

The success of Ray’s third film, Knock on Any Door (1949), led to his first two films being released in the United States in 1949 by a newly confident RKO Radio Pictures.

Of his first three pictures, A Woman’s Secret is easily the weakest, and is significant mostly because it’s how Ray met his second wife, actress Gloria Grahame.

After shooting wrapped, the two were married in Las Vegas on June 1, 1948. It was the second marriage for both of them. (They had to live in Nevada for the required six weeks before Grahame could get her quickie divorce from actor Stanley Clements). Before they divorced in 1952, Grahame starred in one of Ray’s greatest films, In a Lonely Place (1950), which also starred Humphrey Bogart.

A Woman’s Secret was a contract job for Ray. The screenplay was adapted from Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s 1946 novel Verpfändetes Leben (Mortgage on Life) by the film’s producer, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Ray had no script input, so it’s easy to write it off as a studio-imposed footnote in Ray’s career.

Gloria Grahame

A Woman’s Secret is a “women’s picture” wrapped in a mystery. It’s no In a Lonely Place, but it’s worth watching at least once.

The central relationship in the film is the one between Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) and her protégé, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). Marian is a singer who has lost her voice, and she’s completely shaped and guided Susan’s career, rechristening her “Estrellita.” One night, after the two argue bitterly, a shot rings out. Susan lies on the floor near death, a bullet lodged near her heart. Marian is holding the smoking gun, but this is a mystery picture, so don’t assume anything yet.

Most of the film’s plot unspools as a series of flashbacks as Susan lies in the hospital and the detective assigned to the case — Inspector Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) — tries to piece together the facts. He spends a good deal of time with composer and pianist Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), who is Marian’s boyfriend. Fowler also gets plenty of help from his wife, Mrs. Fowler (Mary Philips), who’s running an investigation of her own.

There are a lot of interesting things going on in A Woman’s Secret, but nothing really jells. The film is too crowded with plot and characters for the central relationship between Marian and Susan to ever be fully explored. Melvyn Douglas and Jay C. Flippen are fine performers, and both inject their two-dimensional characters with enough life to make their scenes interesting. Philips gets a juicy role as Inspector Fowler’s wife, and her nosiness isn’t just played for laughs. She actually knows what she’s doing, much to her husband’s chagrin.

Most people who write about Ray’s career either gloss over or completely ignore this film. There’s not much about it that fits in with his obsessions and themes. But despite a studio-imposed script, there are interesting themes and tensions bubbling below the surface. Grahame’s role as Susan/Estrellita in particular feels at home in Ray’s oeuvre. She’s a misunderstood, inarticulate, unhappy, and tragic outsider — a character type that would recur again and again in Ray’s films.

Knock on Any Door (Feb. 21, 1949)

Knock on Any Door
Knock on Any Door (1949)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Santana Pictures Corporation / Columbia Pictures

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.

Knock on Any Door was the third film Nicholas Ray directed, but it was the first of his films to have a wide theatrical release.

Ray directed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO didn’t know how to market it, and it premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.

They didn’t know how to market his second film, either — A Woman’s Secret — which he directed in 1948.

However, They Live by Night had been screened privately for many actors and producers in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart was impressed by it, and he enlisted Ray to direct Knock on Any Door, the first film made by Bogart’s independent production company, Santana Pictures.

Knock on Any Door was an enormous success, and Ray’s earlier films soon found their way into theaters; A Woman’s Secret in March 1949, and They Live by Night in November 1949.

Bogart and Derek

The screenplay for Knock on Any Door, by Daniel Taradash and John Monks Jr., was based on the best-selling 1947 novel by Willard Motley, an African-American writer from Chicago.

Motley’s novel is the story of a young Italian-American named Nick Romano who went from being an altar boy to a career criminal after growing up in a crime-ridden neighborhood and being cycled through the juvenile justice system.

In the film, “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano is played by John Derek. It was Derek’s first credit for a motion picture, although he’d had small roles in a few films before it. The 22-year-old actor was pretty much the perfect choice to play a young hood called “Pretty Boy.”

Much is made of Derek’s good looks. When he’s put on trial for murdering a police officer, his lawyer, Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), makes sure to get as many women on the jury as he can.

Morton feels responsible for the man Romano has become, since his lackadaisical legal work for the Romano family when Nick was a young man doomed Nick’s father to prison. He wants to stack the jury with as many women as possible, since he believes they’ll be swayed by his cherubic face.

Morton’s argument in court is that while Nick Romano has a criminal past, he is innocent of the crime of murder. And because Morton feels partially responsible for Nick’s criminal career, he fights for him with everything he’s got.

Bogart and Derek

Knock on Any Door superficially resembles Call Northside 777 (1948), another movie set in Chicago about a man on a crusade to prove that a second-generation American accused of murdering a police officer has been railroaded. But there’s a major difference between Knock on Any Door and Call Northside 777, and it’s why I put a spoiler alert at the beginning of this review. “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano is guilty.

I don’t know if this is obvious to some viewers. It wasn’t obvious to me. In fact, I felt so completely hoodwinked by Knock on Any Door that I couldn’t stop thinking about its climax after I watched it. Humphrey Bogart is such a likable protagonist, and his adversary — District Attorney Kerman (George Macready) — is so unlikable that I never once stopped to consider that Romano might actually be guilty. The film even sets up Romano as a handsome foil for the D.A., whose face is scarred. It’s strongly implied during all of the cross-examination scenes that Kerman is jealous of the young man’s good looks.

But then the film pulls the rug out from under the viewer. Not only does Romano finally break down on the stand and admit his guilt, but the last shot of the film is of Romano with the back of his head shaved, walking down a long corridor to the electric chair. I couldn’t believe it.

After Romano’s confession and before his walk to the death chamber, Bogart has a chance to speechify as only Bogart could. It’s a well-delivered speech about how crime is everyone’s fault when it’s grown in the Petri dish of the slums, but in the decades since Knock on Any Door was made, “Don’t blame me, blame society” has become a cliché.

The shouted message of the film didn’t have the same impact as the simple fact that I had grown to like Romano and was looking forward to seeing him found not guilty. When the film ended I felt betrayed and devastated.

They Live by Night (Aug. 5, 1948)

They Live by Night
They Live by Night (1948)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
RKO Radio Pictures

This movie grabbed me with its first frame and never let go.

They Live by Night is unlike any other movie I’ve seen so far from 1948. Obviously I know what lay ahead for its director, Nicholas Ray, but even if I didn’t, this is the kind of film that would make me sit up and take notice of his name, and look forward to seeing everything he directed next.

Come to think of it, my knowledge of Ray’s filmography is pretty spotty. In high school, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was one of my favorite films. I watched it over and over, but never thought to explore more of Ray’s films. Years later, I saw In a Lonely Place (1950) and loved it, but didn’t make the connection that it was the same director who made Rebel. But now I’ve got so many Nicholas Ray films to look forward to!

Like all innovative films made more than 50 years ago, They Live by Night doesn’t contain anything we haven’t seen in hundreds of films since, but when viewed in its proper context, it’s exhilarating. Just look at the opening of the film. Unlike nearly every other film of the era that began with a title card followed by a credit roll, They Live by Night begins with shot of two deliriously happy young lovers as the following words flash on the screen: “This boy… and this girl… were never properly introduced to the world we live in… To tell their story…” And suddenly the music becomes grim and portentous, we cut to a shot of a speeding car, and the film’s title appears. The speeding car is filmed from a helicopter, and it’s the earliest instance of action shot from a helicopter that I’ve seen in a film. It’s just one of the innovative ways that Ray creates tension, drama, and excitement with filmmaking techniques that are common practice now, but that were revolutionary at the time.

They Live by Night was based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us (1937). Farley Granger plays a young man named “Bowie” Bowers (his first name is pronounced “Boo-ee,” just like Jim Bowie). When the film begins, he’s an escaped con running from a murder sentence, and his luck will only get worse as the film goes on.

Except for one thing. He falls in love with a young woman named Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and while they’re on the run together, they’re happy as only two young people in love can be happy.

There are obvious comparisons to be drawn with Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). They Live by Night shares the Depression-era setting with Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s visually similar to Gun Crazy, but unlike both of those films, Keechie isn’t an active participant in any criminal activity and the film focuses more on her romance with Bowie than it does on Bowie’s crime spree.

Ray makes so many surprising and smart choices in this film. He doesn’t show most of Bowie’s bank robberies, which focuses our attention on Bowie’s romance with Keechie. His crime spree across Texas is a matter of grim necessity, and all he wants to do is escape. This has the effect of making a radio news report about Bowie’s growing infamy surprising to the audience. Ray makes it easy to forget much of the time that Bowie is a criminal, which make the intrusions of hard reality into Bowie and Keechie’s lives all the more shocking.

Ray also has a knack for depicting life in a way that feels authentic. Even minor characters with just a few lines feel like fully realized, three-dimensional people. When Bowie and Keechie go to a nightclub on a date, the African-American singer Marie Bryant does a rendition of “Your Red Wagon” and collects dollar tips from the crowd, which she folds and clasps between her fingers. Most Hollywood productions would never show a nightclub singer taking tips — it would ruin the illusion of glamour. But the nightclub in They Live by Night looks and feels like a real place. When Bowie goes into the men’s room, he has a brief conversation with the African-American bathroom attendant. In a lesser film, the attendant would be comic relief, and in a lower-budget film, he wouldn’t exist at all.

They Live by Night features top-notch work by all of its cast and crew. Leigh Harline’s music (with uncredited assistance from Woody Guthrie) is phenomenal. George E. Diskant’s cinematography is some of the most beautiful and most noirish I’ve ever seen (they really do live by night in this movie), and Sherman Todd’s film editing is soothing when it needs to be and jarring when it needs to be. Todd and Ray made a lot of risky choices in the editing room, but for my money, they all paid off.

Ray filmed They Live by Night in 1947, but RKO wasn’t sure how to market the film, and it ended up premiering in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948. It wasn’t released in the United States until November 1949, and didn’t end up being a financial success, but it had been screened privately in Hollywood for many actors and producers, which led to Ray’s next film, Knock on Any Door (1949), with Humphrey Bogart, as well as to Farley Granger being cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

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