Monday, January 30, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Second Woman (1950)

THE SECOND WOMAN is an enjoyable mystery thriller with overtones of "gothic noir," starring Robert Young and Betsy Drake.

Ellen Foster (Drake), a CPA, meets architect Jeff Cohalan (Young) while on the train to visit her aunt (Florence Bates) on the Northern California coast. Jeff has been going through a tough time after the death of his fiancee in a car wreck on the eve of their wedding; at times he's charming, while at other points he is very distant. Life grows even more difficult for Jeff as several upsetting incidents of "bad luck" continue to plague him.

Ellen, with a background in actuarial work, comes to believe the odds are impossible that Jeff is simply experiencing accidents by chance, and she sets out to discover who is causing the increasingly dangerous events before it's too late.

This is a solid film with a number of unique angles. The plot is presented in an interesting manner, starting with an apparent suicide attempt by Jeff, then spending an hour in a flashback before picking up the plot again where the movie started. The script by Mort Briskin and Robert Smith does a good job keeping the viewer guessing whether Jeff is suffering from paranoia or one of several people might be trying to do him harm, and there's an unanticipated twist near the ending, too.

Betsy Drake's character, a professional woman with bracing common sense, provides a nice contrast with the film's "spooky house" mood. So often in the "gothic noir" tradition it's the woman who is in jeopardy, but in this case, it's the hero who is in danger, from himself or an unknown assailant. Having the heroine use her business knowledge to help save the hero is a refreshing switch from the typical storyline of the era.

Perhaps the one lingering question is what exactly draws the sensible Ellen to the moody Jeff so strongly, but the heroine falling for a brooding hero is another old plot standby, so it's not too hard to accept. Young plays the role in such a way that at times it's truly difficult to decide if he's persecuted or a mental case.

One of the film's interesting aspects is the very distinctive modern home owned by Robert Young's character, which has equally original interior decor. I was thus intrigued to learn that the film's production designer was Boris Leven, who was nominated for multiple Oscars over the course of his long career, winning for WEST SIDE STORY (1961). The set direction was by Jacques Mapes.

In another unique touch, the film's score is built around themes by Tschaikovsky, with additional original music by Joseph Nussbaum.

John Sutton plays a sleazy associate of Jeff's who has just divorced his wife (Jean Rogers). Sutton is adequate but a bit overdone at times, in a role Zachary Scott could have played well in his sleep.

Morris Carnovsky plays Jeff's doctor, who is also attempting to understand his mental state. The role is somewhat reminiscent of Carnovsky's role as Hedy Lamarr's doctor in DISHONORED LADY (1947).

It's nice to see Florence Bates, who so often portrayed unpleasant women, playing Ellen's kind aunt. The excellent character actor Henry O'Neill plays Jeff's boss and the father his late fiancee. Head Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd (billed as Jimmy) has a small role offering some key evidence late in the film.

The ubiquitous Bess Flowers, who was probably in more nightclub, country club, and party scenes than anyone in movie history, can be spotted in two scenes, first at the country club dance and later sitting at John Sutton's table at the fiesta.

THE SECOND WOMAN was directed by James V. Kern. The black and white cinematography was by Hal Mohr.

This film is out on DVD from Alpha, which releases public domain films. The DVD has a couple of brief skips and occasionally the soundtrack seems a bit muffled, but it's very watchable, on the higher quality end of Alpha's releases.

A DVD is available from Netflix, but the release company isn't identified.
It's also currently available on YouTube.

This film has also been released on VHS.

As an aside, what were they thinking with the poor illustrations of Robert Young and Betsy Drake in the poster with the black background, above and second down on the left?! What an odd pose and expressions. The poster at the very top left is much more attractive and in keeping with the spirit of the film.

The film does have an odd moment or two, such as the almost complete lack of reaction when someone is shot near the end of the movie. All in all, though, I found the movie to be a pleasant surprise, delivering 91 minutes of solid entertainment.

2 Comments:

Blogger DorianTB said...

Laura, although I've never seen THE SECOND WOMAN, your fascinating review had me riveted! I was also intrigued by the casting of Robert Young who, if I recall correctly, played a character in Hitchcock's SECRET AGENT who was not what he seemed. I agree about that black-and-white DVD art, too; it looked more like it was supposed to be a romantic comedy! Sheesh, no wonder some undeservedly obscure films stay obscure -- but I'm glad you help to unearth them so other movie lovers can enjoy them! :-)

9:15 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much, Dorian! Young could really be tricky to figure out at times. :) As with Fred MacMurray, over the last few years, I've come to realize there was sure a lot more to his career than the "TV Dad" I grew up knowing.

THE SECOND WOMAN is a fun movie to watch and analyze. I hope you'll enjoy trying it out!

Best wishes,
Laura

9:11 AM  

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