One of the joys of this Summer of Darkness has been to learn that film noir comes in all shapes and sizes. Since there’s no definitive be-all-end-all definition for the term, what a film noir is to one person might be different to another. A Woman’s Secret, directed by Nicholas Ray and based on Vicki Baum’s novel Mortgage on Life (which is actually an insanely great title), pushes what we expect from noir.
Perhaps the only thing that makes the 1949 film – the third Ray directed that year – a traditional “film noir” is the fact that it begins with the shooting. Only at the very, very end of the 85-minute movie do we finally learn the truth. And bizarrely enough, the truth and the lie give us the same answer. Former singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) did shoot her protege, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). So the real question is, did she intend to shoot her.
At first, Marian tells everyone that she did try to kill Susan. However, piano player Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) knows that Marian would never try to kill anyone, so he tries to convince Inspector Jim Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) of the truth. What makes this different from other noir films is that it’s much lighter and even takes us to Paris at one point. But Ray and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (co-writer on Citizen Kane) keep some of the common threads. We hear stories from different perspectives and there’s extra twists along the way.
Without giving too much away, A Woman’s Secret surprisingly does have a happy ending. Marian doesn’t actually go to the electric chair for a crime she didn’t commit. Even though Susan should have died, she doesn’t. Luke actually gets the girl he wants. It definitely feels like a cheeseball ending that no character in the film really deserves.
That said, it’s a fun film thanks to the turns by its leads. O’Hara is perfectly cast as Marian, taking charge when she needs to, while Douglas brings enough wit to carry the film. Grahame’s character undergoes the biggest changes, swinging from “little girl in the big city” to a femme fetale who’s playing everyone while still in bed.
A Woman’s Secret is by far not a great movie, but fans of the stars in it will enjoy. There’s not much for Ray fans though, sadly. It doesn’t have much of his subversive charm or unique perspective on behavior found in his later films.