29 October 2010

On Imperfection

If Nick Ray is indeed the cinema, as Godard maintains, then we must believe that every muscle in his body belongs to a different element of his films, a different formal concern. And so one is tempted to hypothesize that Nick Ray controlled his opening sequences through the furrowing of his forehead, much as Gloria Grahame could treat a man’s libido like a boomerang through bending her dexterous brows as in A Woman’s Secret.
Being a Ray film, A Woman’s Secret starts with a signature credit sequence, although its value may be lost on those new to the picture. A negative image of a musical score is laid out on a surface as the cast and crew’s names roll by. All we can make out on the sheet are the various notes that comprise a song entitled “Mexican Symphony” by an artist, who, although the name is obscured, we will come to find out is called “Estrellita,” a manufactured name for a manufactured singer. Already a theme of careful control is implied, and reinforced by the following scene’s images. A conductor stands at his podium, behind him hangs a neon “On the Air” sign: this is the interior of a radio studio.

Most critics have pointed out time and again that this scene fails to live up to Nick Ray’s experience in the field of radio – in favoring the auteur over his work they fail to notice the careful arrangement of the scene, the significance of the conductor wagging a baton in front of Susan Caldwell’s face, and the constant machinations of the men in the booth controlling everything from within. From this careful environment of restraint and control comes a dissolve into the home of Marian Washburn, the dominating guardian of Susan/Estrellita – thereby melding an image of the workplace and the home. Marian finishes recording an acetate of the day’s program and turns the machine off after Susan coos, “…And guide him back to me” (In this case, the “him” being the “her” of Marian). From the listlessly bored expression on Marian’s face as she sits down, it seems that she is without meaning sans Estrellita, that she defines herself through Susan’s singing persona, and that the lyric we have just heard sung might as well have been expressed by Marian waiting for Susan.

(One of the eeriest moments in Ray's oeuvre -- Maureen O'Hara looks directly into the camera, acknowledging D.P., director, and audience in one unwitting gesture)

A dissolve takes us to Susan’s entrance but as soon as Marian brings up the day’s broadcast Susan heads for the stairs. The obvious dissatisfaction of the two women with their lives rubs off of one another in a way that readily predicts the legendary staircase scene between Vienna and Emma in Johnny Guitar. Only here the great twist in the dynamic between the two films’ female pairings is that, in the narrative of A Woman’s Secret, the would-be Vienna type has created the supposed Emma type, a female riff on Frankenstein and the golem mythos.

“There’s something I want to talk over with you. Only I don’t mean talk over – I mean tell you…I don’t want any help and I don’t intend to talk it over. It’s just something that I’ve decided to tell you. And I’m going to tell you: I’m tired. I’m tired of everything and everybody and I’m through. I’m through for good.” 

So goes Susan’s rant to Marian, a stinging suicide letter that is, like the heart of Ray’s cinema, honest and to the point; a musing on what constitutes decisive action. And since this is Ray the amateur tragedian at play, the emotions of the scene will shift radically throughout, at opposite ends of the spectrum: Susan’s boiling temper peaking until the bottoms drops out and she dashes away despondent, while Marian’s placid concern snaps to an unexpected fury all of a sudden. But the definitive performance of the scene may be Virginia Farmer as the maid Mollie – her comic timing while reacting to the gunshot shows Ray’s mastery in blocking actors against the complex geometry of his scene.

And so, with this gunshot, the film finds its center, a coat rack upon which to hang its jacket. The film’s Rosebud: Why does Marian take the rap for shooting Susan? The convoluted answer involves explaining why Marian would damn herself to save Susan but it’s impossible to figure out and who really cares anyway? A Woman’s Secret is unrivaled as a movie when you don’t focus on the dead weight at its core. I believe that Marian wrongfully confesses so as to create the movie around her, for without her complicity in the shooting there would be no film. The film’s narrative is avant-garde in its approach, from the false flashback to the hospital sequence in which the film’s characters repeatedly explain the plot points to the audience – not that they make any more sense even when explicitly stated. Marian claims she shot Susan so that we might have a reason for this film’s existence; a reason to capture the amazing little sequence where Luke Jordan heads to Algiers to find Susan; a reason to put passing silhouettes in the window frame of the diner where Inspector Fowler and Jordan compare notes; a reason for Mankiewicz’s lightly surreal touches: “That’s a funny thing about cabs – you wait and wait and wait and finally an empty one shows up and somebody’s in it.” Most of all Marian assumes responsibility so that we can have such a beautiful film to save from those who remain indifferent to a cinema of imperfections, a cinema that streams through Nicholas Ray’s arteries.