Secret Ceremony (1968): Jospeh Losey’s Bizarre Gothic Horror Tale, Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, Robert Mitchum

Blast from the Past: Revisiting Secret Ceremony

Joseph Losey directed Secret Ceremony, a bizarre, incoherent, but perfectly watchable, Gothic horror tale that probes troubles relationship between two women, played by Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow.

Grade: C+ (**1/2 out of *****)

Secret Ceremony

The tale centers on Leonora (Taylor), a middle-aged but still beautiful prostitute, who’s despondent over the death of her daughter.

Enters Cenci, a strange, lonely young woman, who follows Leonora to the cemetery, when she visits the tombstone of her daughter. Striking up a conversation, she invites Leonora to her home, and the older woman is perplexed by the likeness between Cenci and her daughter.

Cenci, who is 22 but looks and acts much younger, asks Leonora to stay, lying to her eccentric, inquisitive, and kleptomaniac aunts, Hilda and Hannah (Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown), that Leonora is cousin of Cenci’s late mother.

Out of the blue, Albert (Mitchum), Cenci’s stepfather, visits Cenci, and she later claims that he had raped her. Leonora is repelled by the man’s brutality until Albert tells her that Cenci is mentally unstable.

Cenci and Albert have sex on the beach, after which the despondent Cenci commits suicide. At the funeral, Leonora now knows whom she chooses to believe.  After standing beside Albert in silence during the burial, Leonora stabs him.

The film ends with Leonora lying in her bedroom, listlessly hitting the cord of ceiling lamp, while reciting a poem about perseverance.

The short story that inspired the film had won a $5,000 prize in a competition run by Life en Español. It had already been filmed for Argentine TV when it was optioned in 1963 by Dore Schary.

The main location was Debenham House in London. Other London locations were St Mary Magdalene Church in Paddington, the area around the Molyneux Monument in Kensal Green Cemetery and the junction of Chepstow Road and St Stephen’s Mews in Paddington. The hotel and beach scenes were shot around the Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin in Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

The touching story of lonely individuals desperate for communication is buried within the Gothic tale, which is marked by elaborate and creepy fetishism and silly dialogue, which is often campy, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Some critics (not me) have charged the film with being misanthropic, due to its cold, distant, and chilling approach, and lacking in understanding the urge and desire for sex (which uis implied rather than shown).

Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora
Mia Farrow as Cenci
Robert Mitchum as Albert
Peggy Ashcroft as Hannah
Pamela Brown as Hilda

Robert Douglas as Sir Alex Gordon
George Howell as First Cleaner
Penelope Keith as Hotel Assistant
Roger Lloyd Pack as Cleaner
Angus MacKay as Vicar
Michael Strong as Dr. Walter Stevens


Directed by Joseph Losey
Screenplay by George Tabori, based on Ceremonia secreta by Marco Denevi
Produced by John Heyman, Norman Priggen
Cinematography Gerry Fisher
Edited by Reginald Beck
Music by Richard Rodney Bennett
Color process Technicolor

Production company: World Film Services

Distributed by Universal Pictures

Release dates: October 23, 1968 (US); June 1969 (UK)

Running time: 109 minutes
Budget $2,450,000
Box office $3 million (US rentals)


TCM showed the movie on Oct 25, 2022, which enabled me to refresh my memory and notes, based on my first viewing, decades ago.

Films Directed by Joseph Losey

N: 32

Span: 1948-1985; 37 years

The Boy with Green Hair (1948)

1950s: 11

The Lawless (1950)

M (1951)

The Prowler (1951)

The Big Night (1951)

Stranger on the Prowl (1952)

The Sleeping Tiger (1954)

A Man on the Beach (1955)

The Intimate Stranger (1956)

Time Without Pity (1957)

The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958)

Blind Date (1959)

1960s: 9

The Criminal (1960)

Eva (1962)

The Damned (1963)

The Servant (1963)

King and Country (1964)

Modesty Blaise (1966)

Accident (1967)

Boom! (1968)

Secret Ceremony (1968)

1970s: 9

Figures in a Landscape (1970)

The Go-Between (1971)

The Assassination of Trotsky (1972)

A Doll’s House (1973)

Galileo (1975)

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

Monsieur Klein (1976)

Roads to the South (1978)

Don Giovanni (1979)

1980s: 2

The Trout (1982)

Steaming (1985)