Secret, The (1997 TVM)

vt The Killing Secret

US / 88 minutes / color / Robert Greenwald, ACI, NBC Dir: Noel Nosseck Pr: Philip Kleinbart Scr: Rob Fresco Cine: Paul Maibaum Cast: Ari Meyers, Soleil Moon Frye, Mark Krassenbaum, John O’Hurley, Cindy Pickett, Erika Flores, Todd Rulapaugh, Tess Harper, Ben Epps.

Although this cannot rid itself of the ambience of a Lifetime movie—and it has indeed been shown on that channel—it’s not entirely without noir interest. In effect, it’s a very much revised retelling of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), at least in its early stages. (Dreiser’s novel has been filmed more faithfully as An American Tragedy [1931] and A PLACE IN THE SUN [1951], the latter in particular having noirish aspects.) There are also some overtones of FATAL ATTRACTION (1987).

Ghastly right-side-of-the-tracks highschool football star Greg Dunleavy (Krassenbaum) is two-timing right-side-of-the-tracks cheerleader Nicole Voss (Meyers) with pretty but decidedly wrong-side-of-the-tracks Emily DeCapprio (Frye). When Emily tells Greg she’s pregnant, assuming they’ll marry and rear the child together, he’s incredulous: no way is he going to throw away his future for someone whose mom waits tables in a diner. She’s persistent and, eventually, soon after his 18th birthday party, having become weary of seeing her tearstained accusatory face every time he rounds a corner, he lures her to a disused (except by necking couples) warehouse, strangles her, and dumps her body in the lake.

Secret, The 1997 TVM Greg recalls dumping Emily

Greg (Mark Krassenbaum) recalls dumping Emily (Soleil Moon Frye).

Meanwhile Nicole has behaved brattishly to Emily’s mom Tina (Harper) in the diner but later apologized sincerely. The two women plant the seeds of a friendship that is, in a sense, the mainspring of the movie. Since Nicole and her own mother are, in emotional and social terms, almost strangers, there’s a clear feeling, in the days following Emily’s “disappearance”, that Tina and Nicole are becoming surrogate mother and daughter to each other. Eventually Emily’s body is found washed ashore. By now Nicole has discovered from Tina that Greg was cheating on her; she dumps him; her snotty friends start giving her the cold shoulder because Greg is so-o-o-o eligible while Tina is just some poverty-stricken nobody from the wrong end of town; Nicole shows her pluck and integrity by standing by Tina; and, if you’ve seen any teen movies before, you’ll recognize this strand of events. I sort of lost count of the dumpings and reconciliations.

Eventually Greg’s gaff is blown for precisely the reason we knew early on it would be: because of a unique set of buttons Emily had picked up in a thrift shop and sewed onto a shirt. Naturally there’s a final showdown in the disused warehouse, with Greg planning to dish out to Nicole the same treatment he gave Emily while Tina approaches from behind with tire-iron in hand, but even this pleasingly delivers something we hadn’t quite expected.

The Secret is most definitely not one of those noirish TVMs—like The LAST SEDUCTION (1994 TVM) or GOTHAM (1988 TVM), to pick two examples at random—of which one might say, “It’s surprising this wasn’t released to the big screen.” It’s incapable of rising above its milieu, as it were. But it’s certainly not dull. Its greatest strength is, ironically, at the same time its greatest problem: Harper’s bravura turn as the stalwart, imperfect, intensely likeable bereaved mother. The performance is a joy to watch; the trouble is that Harper is an actress a couple of rungs up the ladder above anyone else in the cast (and a lot more than a couple of rungs above several of them). It doesn’t do well for one’s emotional involvement in the movie that the character one’s most interested in is the dead girl’s mom. Luckily the actress she works most with, Meyers, has skills that are at least within touching distance of Harper’s; otherwise this could have been disastrous. (The other above-standard player is Epps, as investigating officer Detective Bill Rodlauer.)

There are some clever narrative devices. For example, while Tina is telling Nicole about the startling autopsy results on Emily, Rodlauer is conveying the same information at the station to Greg and his father Ted (O’Hurley). We see the two conversations interleaved, so that a question asked in one of them might be answered in the other.

In keeping with one’s preconceptions about TVMs, there are various continuity errors. As Nicole descends the stairs of the courthouse after Greg’s sentencing, she has her own mother on her right arm and Tina holding her left hand. When the trio emerges moments later from the courthouse door, the two older women have mysteriously swapped sides, so that Tina is now on Nicole’s right. Earlier, we see Nicole preparing for her bed: she puts her nightie on a few seconds after we’ve already seen her wearing it. And so on.

Both Frye and Meyers made their names as child actors. Frye became famous as Penelope “Punky” Brewster in the TV series Punky Brewster (1984–6, 1987–8); more recently she has focused mainly on non-cinematic activities. Meyers, here managing surprisingly well as a character ten years her junior, played Emma McArdle, daughter of Kate in the TV series Kate & Allie (1984–9).


On The Killing Secret (True Stories Collection TV Movie)

2 thoughts on “Secret, The (1997 TVM)

  1. I am most intrigued with this one John, as I am a fan of Dreiser’s novel and Stevens’s film! Again you do a great job putting this one under a magnifying glass with all kinds of astute observations and splendid prose!

    • It’s a kind of distant cousin of the Dreiser novel. I’d not say it’s a good movie, but it’s a bit more intelligent than many TVMs, enough so that I found it held my interest.

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