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.
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.