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The Disparities of a Studio Journeyman: "A Woman's Secret" and "On Dangerous Ground"

Evan Davis

A Woman’s Secret and On Dangerous Ground play as part of a 15-film Nicholas Ray retrospective at New York’s Film Forum on July 28th.

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A Woman’s Secret (1949) and On Dangerous Ground (1952) typify two separate strains in Nicholas Ray’s work for RKO. (They Live by Night, Born to Be Bad, Flying Leathernecks and The Lusty Men are the other films he made for Howard Hughes’s company.) One is a fussy, studio-bound melodrama held down by an inert script; the other is a dreamy, location-focused study of barely controlled feeling, psychosis made healthy by wide expanses of rural America. One lacks genuine tension; the other is consumed by it. One shrugs off its ending; the other swoons in its conclusion’s hopefulness.

A Woman’s Secret may be one of Ray’s least essential films, but it is not completely devoid of ephemeral pleasures. Born to Be Bad behaves similarly, with Ray forced to deal with a script over which he had little control, and circumventing weak material with visual flourishes all his own. (Those flourishes include overhead shots, the aural linkage of deep space with echoing voices, and cameras just behind bodies). The implications of Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) and Susan Caldwell’s (Gloria Grahame) relationship are certainly writ large, with Marian’s homoerotic attraction to Susan barely masked by her mentor role. Repressed feelings give the film its momentum when Susan is found with a bullet in her stomach and Marian holding the gun. The flashback structure limply anticipates Rashomon and rips off Citizen Kane (Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote and produced Secret) without any genuine tension given to whether Marian deliberately shot Susan.  Like Born to Be Bad, expositional dialogue does all the heavy narrative lifting, with wooden performances from O’Hara, Grahame, Melvyn Douglas and Victor Jory causing a lot of telling to swallow up Ray’s showing.

The parallels with Born to Be Bad continue in the form of one great performance, a Chorus figure standing slightly outside the action, observing and wisely commenting upon it. Jay C. Flippen’s Inspector Fowler, in calm, almost whispered tones, is the device through which one can coalesce the soap opera surrounding Marian, Susan, Luke and Brook. His affectionately combative rapport with his wife (Mary Philips) gives an otherwise empty, cynical drama some real tenderness.

Ray’s best films find nuances in performances that the actors themselves may not have been aware of. These nuances form a tension with not only physical but aural space. A Woman’s Secret doesn’t bother to engage in these tensions. Meanwhile, On Dangerous Ground, made only two years later, seems to be made of nothing but that tension.

Darkness and claustrophobia pervade the city where Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) works as a night cop, on the verge of violent madness. Rooms close in around him in the city, disorienting him. (Ray drops in a startling axis-breaking moment while Jim interrogates a woman.) Hand-held cameras follow him as he chases down perps. He can’t even look at women for fear of actually feeling something for one. In a couple of decades, Jim Wilson will turn into Harry Callahan and Travis Bickle.

But something happens. The countryside he finds himself in changes the very way he sees. (A new vision is suggested by Ray with Jim driving, each dissolve a new geography, a portal into another world.) White expansiveness characterizes the farmland in which he hunts for a child murderer. The inside of Mary’s (Ida Lupino) house even seems connected to the earth. A winding piece of wood practically grows out of the floor. Soft lamp and firelight cast warm shadows over her and Jim’s faces.

Her physical and his emotional blindness fit together like pieces in a puzzle. But rather than verbally explain each other’s handicaps, Ray lets long, subdued silences do the talking. Like Ray’s other cinematic equals—Bowie & Keechie, Dix & Laurel, Vienna & Johnny, Vicki & Tommy—Mary and Jim only understand themselves in each other. Furthermore, it is the use of space and sound that dislodges their union from temporal logic. (The first 19 minutes of the film contain no non-diegetic sounds, while Bernard Hermann’s moving score makes Mary’s house a distinct metaphysical condition).

“If only I could really see you,” Mary says at one point to Jim. The irony is that she has. On Dangerous Ground is the only film in Nicholas Ray’s oeuvre in which the spiritual fusion at the end is authentic and uninhibited by their past. Mary and Jim have both lost something which they used to establish their identities, and through each other, they will begin again, not alone.

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Homes for Strangers: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Nicholas Ray, running from July 17th to August 6th—with a special bonus on August 16th & 17th at the Anthology Film Archives—at New York's Film Forum.

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