Woman Error

There’s a blogathon going on! Tony Dayoub’s Cinema Viewfinder Nicholas Ray celebration was a welcome incentive to return to a favourite filmmaker’s oeuvre — I leapt at the chance to view and write about the only Ray film I’d never watched at all, the reputedly minor opus known as A WOMAN’S SECRET.

I went in expecting little — programmers like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR, RUN FOR COVER and BORN TO BE BAD are perfectlyenjoyable, but don’t let Ray flex his cinematic muscles much — as with the very different Von Sternberg, for whom Ray subbed on MACAO, he didn’t seem to commit fully to films that didn’t excite him. But I enjoyed this one: the titular SECRET is ambiguous, the tone uncertain, the structure wobbly, but all that adds a kind of intrigue and unpredictability to a first viewing. I’d never call this a major film, but it’s pleasingly flaky, and it doesn’t give up its mysteries.

Ray is at RKO, where he did some good work, and he’s in the hands of fellow tippler Herman J. Mankiewicz, as producer and screenwriter, which must’ve been interesting, if Ray’s fraught experience with Budd Schulberg on WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES is anything to go by. It looks as if Mankiewicz had noticed that CITIZEN KANE’s flashback-investigation structure was becoming popular in films like THE KILLERS and LAURA, and resolved to swipe it himself (well, he helped invent it in the first place) — so the movie begins with a near-fatal shooting and proceeds to examine the lead-up through the eyes of various interested parties.

Sorta funny/sick the way Gloria Grahame is left unattended on the floor with a bullet in her for long stretches of dialogue.

Mankiewicz can’t quite make up his mind who his main character is, which creates a stimulating muddle: first we get ex-singer Maureen O’Hara, who claims to have fired the shot (which perforated protege Gloria Graham), but the investigation is taken up by their pal, Melvyn Douglas. he’s playing a popular radio personality and music expert / musician, of the temperamental genius/wit variety, so in theory it’s like having Oscar Levant as a detective, which is a wonderful idea. Melv’s casting smooths off some of the gloriously absurd edges of that premise, but it’s still good for some entertainment value.

And so the story moves on, with Douglas narrating his experiences to detective Jay C. Flippen, the man with the face of a tick, then a variety of characters giving their part of the story. Bill Williams figures in as a bullish ex-serviceman somehow mixed up with the ladies’ past, and then Flippen’s wife (Mary Philips) weirdly hijacks the narrative, an armchair detective and mystery fan who can’t resist getting mixed up in her husband’s cases.  It doesn’t make any sense for this comedy character to turn up, stealing fire from our other novelty investigator (both Melvyn and Mary deserve a series of their own!) and cracking the case with a mixture of idiocy, intuition and boundless self-confidence.

One thing this movie helps with is clearing up the CITIZEN KANE authorship debate (if anyone’s still in doubt). See, this movie is Mankiewicz’s baby, with Ray a hired gun brought in to execute it. Mank wrote and produced it. He did a perfectly good job, with even the weird lacunae and ambiguities adding interest. But there’s absolutely no artistic ambition at work: all he wants is a nice little melodrama. Without Welles’ drive and imagination and will to achieve the impossible, Mankiewicz was little more than a heap of kindling without a spark.

And a slow sapphic subtext builds nicely —

Y’see, not only do Maureen and Gloria live together, but they took a trip to Paris together and Maureen says she regards Gloria as an extension of herself. It’s all a bit suggestive, although the scene where Grahame first demonstrates her singing ability is carefully played — she sings to Melvyn, who looks at Maureen, who looks at Gloria.

Another scene, at a cafe in Algiers, has an ambiguous reaction from two old duffers when Melvyn embraces Grahame. Are they dismayed that she’s got a man, or dismayed that he’s got a woman? These are two gentlemen vacationing together in North Africa, so I wondered. The reaction made is a sort of expulsion of air through the lips — not a razz, but something looser. here, I’ll do it for you. Like that, you understand?

And this is how Jay C Flippen reacts to Melvyn Douglas’s lunch invitation.

Of course, these actresses, though not devoid of camp value, certainly don’t strongly suggest lesbian vibes, but anything that makes a film more interesting is a worthwhile reading, no? And the film has a certain shambolic quality that encourages one to look between the lines, because the gaps there are pretty huge. For one thing, it’s not 100% certain which woman it is who has the secret, and the movie never actually explains why O’Hara has told a self-incriminating lie. Her abrupt romantic feelings for Douglas at the end certainly seem like a classic Hollywood dash away from incriminating material.

Still, Ray is in full control of his mise-en-scene, even if he doesn’t have the opportunity to really push it into the neurotic and intense terrain that suited him best. My friend Chris “Chainsaw” Bourton once pointed out to me how Ray will do anything to avoid shooting straight shot-reverse-shot dialogue scenes, and there’s a good example of that in the first scene here — in this argument prior to the shooting, Grahame moves up and down a flight of stairs, followed by the panning camera. This means that while all of her lines are covered by one set-up (with a changing composition), each of the cutaways back to O’Hara is taken from a different camera position to make the eye-lines match.

Since this means shooting more angles (on one character) than a static scene, and angles = time which = money, you have to know that Ray really wanted this effect and thought it worth spending the studio’s money on.

Little things like this aren’t the secret (that word again) of Ray’s brilliance. But they do point to the care he took and his desire to avoid the predictable patterns of shot-reverse-shot, where the audience can settle into being subconsciously confident that they know what they’re going to see next. With Ray, you never know.

16 Responses to “Woman Error”

  1. Yes with Ray you never know but you most certainly suspect. Putting Maureen O’Hara and Gloria Grahame together and fanning the sub rosa sapphic vibes to be derived therefrom is very Ray — who sub rosaed his own “strange twilight urges” most famously in Rebel Without a Cause but also in Bitter Victory (written by his on-again-off-again lover Gavin Lambert) and On Dangerous Ground — in an early scene whewre Robert Ryan’s sadistic cop comes this close to confessing the sexual pleasure he gets out of beating up criminal suspects.

    As a side note in Contempt Piccoli and Bardot mention a screening of King of Kings “un film de Nicholas Ray” but for some reasons the U.S. subtitler translated “Le Roi des Rois” as (wait for it) A Woman’s Secret.

  2. Who’s read the McGilligan book? I quite like the Eisenschitz volume (and Lambert’s Lindsay Anderson book has great stuff too) but am happy to accept an addition to the literature.

  3. Eisenchitz was really and truly besotted with Ray. Ray’s daughter Nikka (mother Betty Uhery, a dancer in Party Girl) is also writing a book. he interviewed me for it about a year ago. Haven’t had a peek at the McGilligan as yet, bu judging from the reviews it paints Ray as a failure.

  4. My copy of the Eisenschitz will be ready in a month. I can’t wait.

    I got to do something for the Nick Ray festivity which I learnt about just now. Struck me that I first came to this blog to discuss Ray four years back. Almost like full circle.

  5. I’ve also been taking a tour of Ray’s cinema in the past few months and watched this one for the first time. Not a good film. Very uneven. Probably only interesting in any larger context because Ray did it.

  6. Am excited about We Can’t Go Home Again. And I hope it truly is Ray’s cut, tidied up technically.

    A Woman’s Secret is absolutely a minor film, and an assignment, about equal to Born to be Bad, but both are quite enjoyable. The mere fact of Ray’s involvement isn’t what makes them mildly interesting, it’s his choices, what he brought to the films.

    In a certain sense, I guess Ray could be seen as a failure. But in all the senses that matter to me, the term isn’t a useful one to use, especially about someone like Ray.

  7. David Boxwell Says:

    The contemporary ads played up Vicki Baum (Vicki! Baum!!) as the “author” of the film. “A Mortgage on Life” is, at any rate, a better title.

    Mary Phillips was the second (or was it the first!) and highly improbable Mrs. Humphrey Bogart. Ray directed ex-wife and husband in the space of a year.

    Just caught sexy lil’ Tony Ray in Cassavetes’ SHADOWS (59)–and THE “woman’s secret” is he got laid when he was 13 by his stepmother and future wife.

    Whose idea was it to humiliate Grahame by having her gulp down water before her dubbed singing?

    McGilligan has lots of good poop about AWS in his Ray bio. . . .

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    Um, McGilligan’s book is called “Nicholas Ray: the Glorious Failure of an American Director.”

    It, predictably, (and I plead guilty to doing this, like most admirers) romanticizes Ray’s dysfunctionality.

  9. Isn’t that a McGilligan hallmark, to romanticize dysfunctionality?

  10. What else can you do with it?

    I thought GG gulping the water was hilarious. She was my favourite character until Mary Phillips showed up. The Azusa dialogue with Melvyn cracked me up.

    Was concerned that O’Hara was rushing into marriage at the end with unseemly haste.

  11. You’re right, but it’s more my reaction to the way McGilligan writes, I suppose (I haven’t read his book on Ray, it’s not in our library). The arc of many bios I’ve read are so predictably dreary (struggle, fame without pleasure, stasis, decline, death, newfound zombie fame, and always with tragedies hovering about) that I should like the way McGilligan writes much more, but it still seems unsatisfying. The bios I’ve recently read make me begin to appreciate well done (even if self-serving) autobiographies.

  12. My main gripe is that in his Cukor book, he refers to “other gay directors, strictly second-rank” such as Leisen and Whale. Who were top men at Paramount and Universal respectively. Whale’s success was short-lived but he may well outrank Cukor based on four or five movies alone, whereas underrating Leisen is the traditional hallmark of the lazy writer, and fortunately seems to be on the wane.

    But apart from that (and getting stuff wrong re the death of the first Mrs Lang), I’ve usually enjoyed McGilligan.

  13. It’s been too many years since I’ve seen A WOMAN’S SECRET — which I loved, last time ’round — so i won’t venture a guess as to how the “unseemly haste” of O’Hara fits into the whole narrative. When contemplated as an abstract notion, tho’, I’d say that it confirms the Sapphic eddies of the film. I mean … a sudden leap into the “right” decision, whether it’s right or not … such things have been known to happen. Just ask me about Husband#1,

  14. david wingrove Says:

    I loved A WOMAN´S SECRET and can´t understand why it gets such a bad rap. Maureen O´Hara slags it off in her autobiography, perhaps because she wasn´t comfortable playing a glamorous lipstick lesbian – although she does so superbly.

    Also enjoyed BORN TO BE BAD, with Joan Fontaine as The Incarnation of All Evil (if you think that was acting, just ask her sister!) and Mel Ferrer as her gay painter pal.

    Perhaps because I´ve never been wholly convinced by Ray as a ´great director´, I find it quite easy to enjoy his minor films.

  15. Well, even his great films hover on the verge of disintegration, which is what’s so interesting about him. So minor films certainly have their place in appreciating his crazy talent.

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