US / 85 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: Nicholas Ray Pr & Scr: Herman J. Mankiewicz Story: Verpfändetes Leben (1946; vt Mortgage on Life) by Vicki Baum Cine: George Diskant Cast: Maureen O’Hara, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Grahame, Bill Williams, Victor Jory, Mary Philips, Jay C. Flippen, Robert Warwick, Curt Conway, Ann Shoemaker, Virginia Farmer, Ellen Corby, Emory Parnell.
One of Ray’s earliest movies, after THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) and KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (1949), this is often listed as a film noir. At best it’s a borderline case; really it’s more like one of the interminable strings of quickie mysteries produced as fillers by the Poverty Row studios such as Monogram and PRC, but with significantly higher production standards, a much more polished screenplay (but see below) and, of course, a far higher-profile cast. Unfortunately, a few of the flaws of those Monogram/PRC cheapies seem evident too.
After finishing her radio broadcast one night, the popular singer Estrellita, aka Susan Caldwell (Grahame), arrives home and flies straight into a noisy argument with her mentor, Marian Washburn (O’Hara): despite all that Marian has done for her, Susan wants to abandon her career and go back to her podunk hometown of Azusa, California, where the most she ever had to cope with were the hands of married men. Susan storms up to her room with Marian following; moments later the maid Mollie (Farmer) hears the sound of a gunshot and discovers Marian standing over a seemingly dead Susan. On the arrival of the cops, Marian insists that she’s guilty of the crime.
Her old friend, accompanist Luke Jordan (Douglas), frankly disbelieves her. He hires as her defense attorney Brook Matthews (Jory), who for a time was Susan’s lover. Together they bend the ear of Assistant DA Roberts (Warwick) and the cop in charge of the case, Inspector Jim Fowler (Flippen). With Susan’s life hanging in the balance and Marian declining to withdraw her confession, we witness various extended flashbacks, including more than one version of the lethal confrontation in Susan’s bedroom but more crucially the tale of how Marian herself was once a promising singer but then, through catching a rare form of laryngitis, lost her voice. Some while after, she and Luke almost literally tripped over Susan, who fainted from lack of food on the stairs outside an audition.
It immediately became apparent to them that the naive Susan was childishly gullible, vulnerable through her extreme suggestibility: the reason she hadn’t been able to afford food, despite a reasonable job in a department store, was that she’d been seeing a fortune teller at $100 a visit, and “he really can’t tell much in less than three visits”. Luke and Marian fed her and, for fun, she sang a song; as Luke later says, “She just had a voice with hormones.”
Marian took the girl under her wing, taught her not just how to sing but how to comport herself and how to act, even took her to Paris, all for the purpose of training her to become a star in stage musicals. But Susan slipped away from Paris to Algiers because a shoe salesman she met told her there was an operatic company there she could join. Luke rescued her and, aboard the liner bringing the trio back across the Atlantic from Paris to NYC, made sure to ingratiate her with another of the passengers, the lawyer Brook Matthews, whose legal company represented various important entertainment entities. The rest was history until that fatal (or near-fatal) night . . .
For about its first two-thirds, the movie seems set to be a classic. O’Hara and Grahame are splendid, utterly convincing as potential musical stars even though the glamour they each would offer their audiences would be of an entirely different nature: Susan cheaply pretty, her vulnerability part of her stage attraction, and Marian a deeper, less compromising personality. Douglas and Flippen are fine in their roles, and it doesn’t matter too much that Jory seems grievously miscast. (Williams, as an ex-GI who fell for Susan while she was in France, Lee Crenshaw, offers one of those performances whereby you keep forgetting his character exists.) There are some good moments of insight, as when it becomes plain to us that, however upstanding and honorable Marian might be, the motive for her mentoring of Susan, and dedication to Susan’s success, is as much self-serving as philanthropic: “You’re myself, the way I could have been, the way I wanted to be. . . . You’re talking about giving up my life—and it is my life just as much as it’s yours.”
But the latter stages of the movie fall apart—not completely, but enough to mortally damage the edifice. For no discernible reason, Inspector Fowler’s wife Mary (Philips), so far merely a background presence, is suddenly developed as a comic character, prancing around with a huge magnifying glass in a quasi-parody of Sherlock Holmes. In a screenplay that earlier was marked by its smoothness and ease there start to be odd clumsinesses, as when, aboard the liner, Luke tries to reassure Brook’s anxious mother (Shoemaker) that the seeming floozy they’ve unleashed on her son represents no danger to his honor:
“I don’t see how it could hurt the most promising songwriter of tomorrow, that’s me, if he were to get married to an important musical-comedy actress.”
Marian looks at him as if totally at a loss to know what the hell he’s talking about; the trouble is, so are we, and Luke’s later attempt to fob it off as a joke seems like a rapid editorial fix to account for a sequence that might better have gone to the cutting-room floor. And, while we’re offered an almost plausible explanation for why Susan failed to contradict Marian’s self-incriminating version of events leading up to the shooting, there’s no explanation at all offered for why Marian should have given that false account.
O’Hara’s singing voice was good, but Grahame’s songs had to be dubbed by singer Kaye Lorraine. There’s nothing at all wrong with Lorraine’s performance, but the voice itself, rich and mellow, seems oddly mismatched to the vapid speaking voice Grahame used for Susan.
The movie wasn’t well received by either critics or audiences. It did, however, bring director Ray and actress Grahame together; they married in Las Vegas shortly after shooting completed, within hours of Grahame obtaining a quickie divorce from her (by now estranged) first husband, Stanley Clements.
On Amazon.com: A Woman’s Secret