Woman’s Secret, A (1949): Nicholas Ray’s Women’s Melodrama, Starring Maureen O’Hara and Gloria Grahame

A Woman’s Secret is not one of Nicholas Ray’s strongest films–it does not display his thematic concerns or visual signature, and even the acting is not great considering the level of talent.

Ray himself did not like the script and complained about it 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 only $700,000.

It’s more 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 a New York entertainer named 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), hailing 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.

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 real 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.