By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
The next entry in our Noir or Not series is Open Secret, a 1948 Eagle-Lion feature with a theme of anti-Semitism, starring John Ireland and Jane Randolph. It was directed by John Reinhardt, a native of Austria who’d gotten experience on the shadowy side of the screen when he helmed two low-budget noirs for Monogram Pictures in 1947: The Guilty and High Tide.
Ireland and Randolph (who co-starred the year before in Railroaded!) are Paul and Nancy Lester, newlyweds whose honeymoon travels include a stop in the hometown of Paul’s Army buddy Ed Stevens (Charles Waldron, Jr.). Ed invites the couple to stay in his home, but when they arrive, Ed is nowhere to be found. What we know, and what Paul and Nancy are soon to discover, is that Ed is in some kind of trouble (“Look, I told you before – I don’t want any part of it,” we hear Ed tell a caller. “I’m through.”) and he’s not likely to be coming back any time soon. Or at all. The film takes us through the couple’s investigation into Ed’s whereabouts, which leads them to a deadly group of anti-Semites that have a stranglehold on the town.
But inquiring minds want to know: is this noir? Or not?
The opening of Open Secret is certainly pure noir. A man walks down a dark and shadowy street into a building, accompanied by a suitably somber musical score, and enters a room where a vote is taking place among those gathered there. One of the men reveals the results: “He’s guilty.” And then, as the shadow of a behatted gent crosses the screen, the credits begin.
Paul and Nancy are staying in Ed’s apartment (although it’s not made clear how they gained access), and they soon encounter a progressively disturbing series of circumstances. They return from a shopping excursion on their second night to find that an intruder has been in the apartment. And that’s not all they find – Nancy comes across several half-hidden pamphlets focusing on white supremacy, and comments with noirish doom: “There’s something wrong. I can feel it.”
From this point, doom-adjacent warnings and paranoia swirl around the characters like fallen autumn leaves. When Paul receives a mysterious phone call and heads out, (mistakenly) thinking he’s going to meet Ed, Nancy tells him, “Don’t get yourself mixed up in anything.” And later, Paul contacts the police about his missing friend, telling Sgt. Mike Frontelli (Sheldon Leonard) that the call he received “seemed like a stunt to get me out of the house – it all adds up to confusion.”
As Paul and Nancy begin seeing tangible examples of anti-Semitism – the killing of a Jewish neighbor named Fisher by a hit-and-run driver, tires slashed on the car of Jewish store owner Harry Strauss (George Tyne) – the film both literally and figuratively takes on a darker tone. Many of the scenes unfold inside darkened rooms and hallways or at night, where the contrast between shadows and light is even more pronounced. And when Nancy questions the reasoning behind the racist behavior of the townspeople, Paul grimley explains, “I suppose some people can’t live without hating. It’s the only way they can feel superior. Some people hate because they’re stupid. Others, just plain vicious. And there are some that hate just because they’re told to.”
The film is populated with numerous noir-tinged characters. There’s Sgt. Frontelli – he initially brushes off Paul’s concerns over Ed’s disappearance (“Maybe he just took a temporary powder. It happens all the time.”), but it doesn’t take long for him to see that everything is not what it seems to be. And the men of the town are almost caricatures of bad guys, including the fake-friendly bartender who – like a grown-up schoolyard bully – offers Strauss a drink and then pours beer on his head. Nancy, while at first seeming to be a bit weak and naïve, proves that she’s no shrinking violet, in one scene furiously chasing away the neighborhood boys damaging Strauss’s car, and later, using her intuition and guts to go toe-to-toe with the head of the leader of the anti-Semite organization.
The film’s most noirish character, though, is Paul, a hard-boiled hero who is fearless, even reckless, in his pursuit of the truth. Loyal and trusting, Paul refuses to believe that his friend is involved with the bigoted group behind the pamphlets he found in Ed’s apartment: “Somebody probably stuffed them in his mailbox,” he tells his wife. “It must be – Ed isn’t like that. He probably used them to wrap up his garbage.” And when he realizes that Strauss’s car was vandalized because he is a Jew, he offers to help; it doesn’t matter that he only met Strauss minutes before, or that Strauss is being ostracized by the community. In fact, this appears to be Paul’s primary reason for assisting him – a decidedly heroic move.
The hard-boiled aspect of Paul’s character rises to the surface when his friend turns up dead – and all signs indicate that he was driving the car that killed his Jewish neighbor, Fisher. But when Paul learns that Ed’s death was no accident, he grows increasingly suspicious: “Ed was framed – framed and murdered. And whoever ran down Fisher is in the clear.” In an effort to unearth some evidence, Paul heads for The 19th Hole – the local pub where, according to Strauss, Ed used to drink with his friends. But even after Paul introduces himself as Ed’s army pal, he’s not exactly received with open arms – and this leads to one of the film’s noiry-est scenes, with Paul delivering a series of smackdowns that’ll make you want to cheer. When he’s asked why they haven’t seen him there before, Paul flatly replies, “Because I haven’t been here before.” When an especially surly drunk guy named Locke (Roman Bohnen) warily observes, “I’ve seen you someplace,” Paul comes right back: “I’ve been someplace.” The drunk guy doesn’t back down – and neither does Paul. When Paul asks a question about Ed, Locke comments that Paul doesn’t know very much about a man who is supposed to be his friend. Paul doesn’t even bother to respond to that. Instead, he coolly munches on a peanut and remarks, “You know, I could learn not to like you.” Tres noir.
Paul is quietly smart; he’s not flashy, but he’s thoughtful. I don’t know what he does for a living, but he moves with the calm and confidence of a veteran police detective, and he acts like one, too. He tracks down suspects, puts together clues, and places himself in a maelstrom of jeopardy, even when he’s told that it “isn’t smart to know too much.”
With a plot centering on bigotry and hate, Open Secret is certainly an unusual entry in the noir canon. No femmes fatales. No trench-coated, fedora-wearing private dicks. No one’s getting killed for their insurance money or for the jewelry stashed in Aunt Vera’s safe. And no luckless saps are defying their scruples trying to carry out the perfect crime.
The film is populated with a varied collection of noirish characters, from Strauss’s menacing but morally conflicted assistant to the backroom bad guys using the one man-one vote method of meting out death sentences. It’s notable for the sinister look of the scenes which, while obviously shot on a small studio set, manage to convey a foreboding sense of claustrophobia. And there’s a tone weaving throughout the film that evokes an inescapable feeling of encroaching doom. In my book, these combined factors can lead to only one conclusion: Open Secret is film noir.
Other Stuff About the Open Secret Cast (Or, where have I seen that fella before?) :
Arthur O’Connell – who you might know best from films like Picnic (1955), Bus Stop (1956), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – plays a featured role in the film as Carter, one of the top bad guys. He’s most notable for an unexpected slap he delivers to one of his underlings and the fact that he never leaves the back room of The 19th Hole bar.
Don’t blink or you might miss Tommy Noonan’s bit part as a barfly. He’s probably best known for playing the fiancé of Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and musician Danny McGuire in A Star is Born (1954). Noonan was also the half-brother of Open Secret star John Ireland – the two had the same mother.
Making his big screen debut as another member of the bad boy set was King Donovan, who would go on to play the head of the publicity department in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Solly in The Defiant Ones (1958) and Jack Bellicec in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). He was married to Imogene Coca from 1960 until his death in 1987.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. She is also the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, founded in 2004. She can be found on Twitter at @thedarkpages.