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The Secret Fury

Posted by martinteller on November 16, 2012

“How can I be calm when I feel a net closing around me?  A horrible, black nightmare of lies!”

David McLean (Robert Ryan) and Ellen Ewing (Claudette Colbert) are getting hitched.  At the “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment, a stranger speaks.  He claims that Ellen can’t marry David because she’s already married… to Lucian Randall, a man she’s never heard of.  They place a quick phone call — during which the stranger dashes off — and verify his claim.  They travel to the town where it supposedly happened, see the license with Ellen’s signature, talk to the justice of the peace and his wife who both remember her, even the hotel maid knows her.  As Ellen continues to claim ignorance of the whole thing, they go to meet Randall (Dave Barbour) himself.  The confrontation ends up with Randall shot and killed, and now Ellen is on trial for a murder she swears she didn’t commit of the husband she swears she never met before.

The resolution to all this is rather disappointing — similar in some ways to the last movie I watched, The Scarf — but getting there has its pleasures.  The first act is all setup, seeing the evidence against Ellen pile up, wondering what the explanation is behind this elaborate mystery.  In the second act we see the trial, intensified because the defense attorney (Philip Ober) is a family friend and the district attorney (Paul Kelly) is a romantic rival.  During the proceedings, Ellen loses her grip on sanity.  And in the third act, as the film gets progressively darker and closer to noir, David tries to discover the truth.  Each section of the film has its own appeal.

The most compelling aspect is Colbert’s portrayal of a woman descending into madness.  It’s not all that different from her role in the sublime Sleep, My Love a couple of years earlier… she does this confused, distraught, vulnerable role very well.  Ryan has less of a meaty role, but he gets to shine a bit more in the last portion of the film, throwing some punches and dealing with tense situations.  The supporting performances are all fine, with special mention for Kelly and Vivian Vance (best known as Ethel Mertz) in a very small part.

The music is quite good, especially the little jazz combo section.  The cinematography starts out a bit bland but intensifies as the story goes deeper into noir territory.  It’s the plot that leaves something to be desired.  There’s a bit of a surprise to the ending, but it’s not a very satisfactory conclusion.  There are other places this could have gone, ones that would have had a greater impact.  Still, there’s enough compelling elements to the film to make it worthwhile.  Rating: Good (77)


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