Arguably “A Woman’s Secret” is one of Nicholas Ray’s weakest films, a work that fails to display his thematic concerns or visual signature; even the acting is not very good.
Not surprisingly, Ray did not like (and complained about) the script to his RKO bosses before production began. For their part, the studio’s producers believed that there was no way they would lose money on a film whose budget was about $700,000.
It’s doubly disappointing to realize that the tale was scripted by the accomplished scribe, Herman J. Mankiewicz. This compromised film noir is based on the novel “Mortgage on Life” by Vicki Baum, who also penned “Grand Hotel,” starring Garbo and John Barrymore.
Drawing on “Citizen Kane,” which he co-wrote with Orson Welles, and prefiguring “All About Eve,” which was written and directed by his brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Herman J. Mankiewicz’s script spins a twisty, bizarre but unsatisfying story.
Maureen O’Hara plays New York entertainer Marion Washburn, who loses her voice. Aided by her piano player, Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), ,she takes on a young protégé, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). from a small-town California and then learns to regret it.
Caldwell, whose stage name is Estrellita, proves to be ungrateful and unstable, especially among men. When Caldwell decides to quit the business, she is shot and seriously wounded and Marion is charged with the crime.
Caldwell is played by Gloria Grahame whom Ray courted during the shoot and later married; she gives a much stronger performance in Ray’s 1950 noir “In a Lonely Place,” opposite Humphrey Bogart.
The story is told in a series of overlapping, often contradictory flashbacks, to the point where the past and its witnesses become unreliable
Thus, Marion tells how she shot her young protégée, the hellcat Caldwell, whom she had groomed for fame as a singer when her own voice had begun to give out. We see how Sarah rebelled against Marion’s efforts to make a lady out of her.
However, as the tale unfolds, the narrative structure is flimsy and convoluted; at a later point, the story inexplicably shifts to Algiers.
Coming briefly out of a coma, Caldwell reveals who actually shot her–it was not Marion. But it’s never made clear why Marion ever bothered to confess in the first place.
Production values are passable but are not nearly as impressive as they are in the rest of Ray’s work. George Diskand’s black and white images are decent, but not more.
Running time: 84 Minutes.