By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
Our Noir or Not series continues with The Second Woman, an interesting little feature starring Robert Young and Betsy Drake. With working titles that ranged from Her Sin (for some reason) to Here Lies Love, The Second Woman was produced and written by Mort Briskin and Robert Smith; Briskin would later write and produce the popular Joe Don Baker starrer, Walking Tall (1973), and Smith would contribute to the screenplays for such noirs as Sudden Fear (1952) and 99 River Street (1953).
Told primarily in flashback, the story centers on architect Jeff Cohalan (Young) and certified public accountant Ellen Foster (Drake), who have a meet cute on a train headed for the California seaside town of Pinecliff, where Jeff lives in a house called Hilltop that he designed and built. Minnesota native Ellen is on her way to visit her Aunt Amelia (Florence Bates), who is Jeff’s neighbor and knows all about him – including that he has a tragic past. Turns out that a year before, Jeff’s fiancé Vivian (“The most beautiful girl you ever laid your eyes on,” according to Amelia) was killed in an automobile accident the night before their wedding, after she and Jeff “stole away” together from a party hosted by Vivian’s father (and Jeff’s boss). Jeff and Ellen are immediately attracted to each other, but their budding relationship is hampered by a series of accidents and incidents in Jeff’s life, including the death of his dog, a life-ending injury to his horse, the destruction of an expensive sculpture, and the death of a prized rosebush. Who’s responsible? Maybe it’s Jeff’s co-worker, Keith Ferris (John Sutton). Or his physician, Dr. Hartley (Morris Carnovsky), who warns Ellen of Jeff’s delusions of persecution. Or maybe it’s Jeff himself!
But the real question is – is The Second Woman noir? Or not?
The opening of the film is clearly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s noir-adjacent Rebecca (1940), which starts with Joan Fontaine’s character stating that she dreamt of (her home) Manderley the night before, and sharing that “we can never go back to Manderley again.” Similarly, in The Second Woman, Ellen’s voice tells us, “Today, I looked upon the cliff where Hilltop stood. . . . But Hilltop is no more. There is only a scar of jutting rock where once its windows glittered in the California sun.” Shortly after this musing, we launch into the flashback that lasts almost the entirety of the film – this device, along with voiceover narration, is certainly common to classic noir.
As the plot slowly unfurls, we receive several signs that something bad is on the horizon – a noirish sensation of doom, if you will – and they’re all pointing toward Jeff. First, Dr. Hartley, who also happens to be on that train to Pinecliff, questions Jeff about his recurring periods of depression and looks concerned as he observes Jeff’s interaction with Ellen. Later, after Ellen pays a visit to Jeff’s home, her aunt reveals that Jeff can be “light-hearted one moment and the next, he can be strange.” Aunt Amelia is also surprised to learn that Ellen has been inside Hilltop, because Jeff has not allowed anyone in his home since Vivian’s death. And, for reasons that are initially unclear, Keith is – shall we say – not exactly a fan of Jeff. At the local country club one night (where the entire town seems to be present), Keith and Ellen discuss Jeff, with Keith sarcastically referring to his co-worker as “our local hero,” and snarking, “I suppose you’ll fall madly in love with him – everybody else does.” And on a different evening, as he’s leaving a social gathering, Keith suggests to his boss, Ben Sheppard (Henry O’Neill), that he keep an eye on Jeff: “See that he doesn’t drink any more. He was getting a little out of control.”
With all these red flags fluttering in Jeff’s direction, it’s only fitting that he’s the most noirish character in the film. Aunt Amelia hit the nail on the head with her observation about his contrasting characteristics; his demeanor literally changes in mere seconds from charming and upbeat, to inexplicably curt at best and downright ominous at worst. In the segment of the film that takes place at the country club, he’s having a delightful time dancing and flirting with Ellen – that is, until the orchestra plays a certain tune that was popular from the year before. After identifying the title of the song as “Don’t Forget Me,” Jeff abruptly leaves Ellen standing in the middle of the dance floor. During one of Ellen’s visits to Hilltop, she admires a bouquet of red flowers from Jeff’s yard that are called “Matador roses.” Ellen remarks that they must be named after the bullfighter’s red cape – and Jeff morosely, and inexplicably, counters, “Or the bull’s blood.” Then there’s the scene where Jeff and Ellen are walking on his property and Jeff takes off running after a man hiding in the bushes. The problem is that Ellen never sees the man and there’s no one else in the area. And at a swanky party thrown by Jeff’s boss, Jeff suddenly approaches one of the waiters, loudly accusing him of being the man he saw near his home. (It’s a wonder that Ellen is so attracted to him – the instances where Jeff isn’t displaying these kinds of bizarre actions are few and far between.)
Incidentally, we’re given a possible explanation of this variant behavior from Dr. Hartley, who doesn’t mention Jeff by name, but launches into a psychology-based discussion after Ellen mentions the unseen prowler at Jeff’s house. Learning that only Jeff saw this mysterious man, the doctor asks Ellen if she knows the meaning of “paranoia,” and tells her: “It starts with an inability to withstand stresses. A normal person experiences misfortune, throws it off sooner or later. But if a person is psychotic to begin with, he may start to imagine things. He might even begin to imagine there’s a conspiracy against him. That’s when it gets dangerous.” Is this the root of Jeff’s problems? Maybe. But maybe not.
The noirish atmosphere of the film is aided by several shots that are memorable for their painterly use of shadows and light, courtesy of two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Hal Mohr. These include a scene where Ellen is inside her aunt’s house and is drawn by a noise coming from the direction of Hilltop. She heads to a window to better hear the sound, leaving a well-lit foyer and entering a darkened great room, where the shadows and the film’s score combine to heighten the sensation of impending misfortune. There are also numerous scenes set outside at night that lend a haunting, almost gothic overtone to the film.
The Second Woman is one of those features that has been outfitted with numerous cinematic labels, including mystery, melodrama, and romance, and certainly, a persuasive argument could be made for each. But for my money, and all things considered – the film’s opening, the overarching sensation of doom, the generous use of shadows, and the tortured character of Jeff (not to mention pointed warnings from Jeff like “Don’t trust anybody . . . not even me.”) – I’d say that The Second Woman ticks enough dark and murky boxes to qualify as film noir.
Other Stuff on The Second Woman :
Betsy Drake was the third wife of actor Cary Grant; they were married from 1949 to 1962. Drake walked away from acting in the 1960s and earned a Master of Education degree from Harvard University, establishing an impressive career that included maintain a private therapy practice, working as Director of Psychodrama at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, and writing the novel Children, You Are Very Little (1971).
A small role near the end of the film was played by Jimmy Dodd. Best known for his role as co-host of TV’s popular Mickey Mouse Club, Dodd was in several other noirs, including Too Late for Tears (1948), Quicksand (1950), and Convicted (1950).
Cinematographer Hal Mohr is the only winner of an Academy Award based on a write-in nomination. In 1936, the year after he won this award for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the Academy eliminated the write-in option.
John Sutton (Keith) was born in India, and before pursuing his acting career, he worked as a rancher and a tea plantation manager. His name is not typically recognized today, but he can be seen in a number of popular features from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and Jane Eyre (1943).
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.