If the accused are innocent until proven guilty, they are also presumed liars until they are proved to be truth tellers who are merely legally naive. The one exception to this rule are the accused that accept guilt, but not because they are backed into a corner or bargaining to a lesser charge. Take, for example, A Woman’s Secret (1949),where a maid hears a shot fired, so she rushes upstairs and enters the room from where the shot originated. She sees Marian (Maureen O’Hara) standing over Susan (Gloria Graham), who is clinging on to life because of a fresh bullet. The police show up, and Marian immediately admits to shooting Susan, dutifully volunteering the information like an honest citizen trying to alert the police to the facts so they can immediately wrap up the case and get on with their busy lives (i.e. inhaling donuts like Robert Evans inhales cocaine). Wouldn’t it be nice if your job were so simple? You show up to work, and someone runs up to you saying “here is the report that you are supposed to turn in at the end of the week…PLEASE TAKE IT NOW!”. It’s just too perfect.
Well, in accordance with movie laws, if a mystery is solved completely and thoroughly ten minutes in, it can’t be what actually happened, since the movie still has to fill 80 some minutes. However, there aren’t too many other credible scenarios that explain why Susan was shot (an example of a scenario lacking in credibility might be that aliens shot her through the window because she had learned about the alien's plan to steal all of the world's pants). While remaining oblique (you remember “Remaining Oblique”, they opened up for Depeche Mode in the mid 80’s), I’ll just say that only a deus ex machina (that’s latin for “twist ending pulled out of your ass”) would save the final reveal from being obvious. This “mystery” is supplemented with detours featuring some nice smartass B-movie dialogue, especially on the part of Melvyn Douglas, taking his smooth charm and filtering it through a stubborn character, sort of a cross between his earlier romantic lead roles (Ninotchka, for example) and the crotchety old man roles he played later on in life (like in The Tenant).
While the investigation appears to be the center of the movie according to the screenwriter, the real core of the movie according to director Nicholas Ray lies in Marian’s emotional state. The expressionistically lit close-ups of Marian’s face reflect an inner turmoil that runs the proverbial gamut, whether from frustration to horror at what she has done to black hearted joy to possible lesbian attraction (possibly). She was a singer whose career was cut short by illness, a resolute failure that put all of her eggs in one basket (her singing career), only to watch a hippopotamus come out of nowhere and sit on said basket, crushing the eggs and her life’s dream in the process (boy that’s a forced metaphor). She gloms onto naive ingenue Susan, another singer, trying to mold her into the successful singer she always wanted to be. This would allow Marian to, in effect, live vicariously through Susan and adopt her success as her own (as Marian puts it, “it is my life as much as it is yours”).
Right before the shooting, Susan had finally had enough of Marian’s controlling ways. Susan tries to gain cinematic power over Marian by standing on the stairs and yelling at her, finally pushing back against her “master”. This proves a sharp contrast to a similar framing in Rebel Without a Cause, where James Dean’s mother stands on the stairs, clutching on to the railing as if desperately clutching on to the power she still has over her son. Dean wishes to turn himself in as an accessory to a game of chicken turned deadly, to do the “right thing” in his own mind, but his parents won’t have any of it. Relics of the previous age and slaves to the practical, they attempt to use their power to convince Dean not to confess his guilt to the authorities, which would leave a black mark on the family. Conversely, in A Woman’s Secret, Susan uses the stairs to finally gain power over Marian for the first time. She is shot immediately afterwards for her hubris.
Marian’s relationship with Susan reminds me of an unfortunate dynamic that sometimes exists between parent and child, where the parent tries to force the child into a career path that they themselves failed at, in order to live vicariously through them. You see this a lot in sports. Say some guy is a budding badminton star. People point and say “that guy works a shuttlecock like nobody’s business”, “that guy is one with his shuttlecock”, and “his shuttlecock is an extension of himself”. Unfortunately, his career is tragically cut short in a bizarre toaster accident involving projectile Pop Tarts and an unfortunately placed bowling ball (I told you it was bizarre), and his failed career festers within him. He has a son who he trains to be the next great badminton champion. His son works practices tirelessly, while father yells out “work that shuttlecock like nobody’s business!”, “become one with the shuttlecock!”, and “let the shuttlecock become an extension of yourself!”. Then one day, during a high school tournament match where his son is losing badly, the father bum rushes the court after he thinks the referee blew a call and punches the zebra in the head. The father’s dream of being able to pretend he’s a badminton champion by living through his son goes up in smoke, so he explodes into violence. Of course, the son will eventually grow to hate both badminton and his father, culminating in the day when the son tells the father where he can stick that shuttlecock (I’ll leave the subtle homoerotic shadings to the Freudians).
A Woman’s Secret presents a version of this that is both female-centric and way way way way way way less douchey. Instead of some asshole father in Zubaz pants yelling at his son in public for not being a perfect stand-in for his own athletic dreams, Marian gave a dream everything she had, only to watch it smash to bits and be forced to swallow the broken shards. These dream shards festered inside like a nightmare, forcing her to find a new dream as she slips deeper into her slumber, so deep that she is unaware that this new dream is not even her own. Boy, if metaphors are my business, business is suffering due to market oversaturation.
P.S. This was written as part of Cinema Viewfinder's Nicholas Ray blogathon, albeit it two days late. Yes, I'm a deadbeat.