Moody, intriguing little noir...until they completely blow the ending. Sony Pictures' Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Family Secret, the 1951 Santana production (Bogey's company), released by Columbia Pictures, directed by Henry Levin, and starring John Derek, Lee J. Cobb, Jody Lawrence, Erin O'Brien-Moore, Henry O'Neill, Santos Ortega, Henry O'Neill, Carl Benton Reid, Peggy Converse, Jean Alexander, Dorothy Tree, and Whit Bissell. No extras for this sharp, full-screen black and white transfer.
Pampered, spoiled man-child David Clark (John Derek) panics and leaves a local tavern in a cloud of dust: his best friend, Art Bradley, lies dead behind the inn, his skull crushed by a rock. David is the murderer. Tear-assing back to his spacious suburban home, he encounters his parents, successful attorney Howard Clark (Lee J. Cobb) and homemaker Ellen (Erin O'Brien-Moore), entertaining guests: law partner Donald Muir (Henry O'Neill) and Art's widowed mother, Sybil Bradley (Peggy Converse). When the police notify everyone of Art's murder, David eventually spills his guts to his father and mother: he killed Art in self-defense when Art--a good boy who started to go bad with drinking and gambling--jealously accused David of screwing around with friend Vera Stone (Jean Alexander). Attorney Howard asks David to do the right thing--go to the cops immediately and explain what happened--especially since the local D.A., George Redman (Santos Ortega) is a friend of the family. Weakling David's mother, Ellen, however, after cagily ascertaining that there were no witnesses, advises David to keep his trap shut. That way, there's no chance of the law coming down on David: the murder will be the family's little "secret." Howard is devastated by this turn of events, but he does nothing to stop it. David tries to go on with his life as if nothing happened, but finds it strangely dissatisfying; he can't even score with Dad's smart-mouthed assistant, Lee Pearson (Jody Lawrence). When an eyeball witness, however, comes forward and claims that bookmaker Joe Elsner (Whit Bissell) killed gambling customer Art, Mom and Son convince Dad to let it play out, further absolving David of suspicion. There's only one problem: Elsner's wife (Dorothy Tree), begs Howard to defend her heart attack-prone husband against the murder charge.
From that somewhat lurid poster art, I thought The Family Secret, which I hadn't heard of before the screener showed up in my box, might be some kind of sexploitater involving dreamboat John Derek. Watching it unfold, however, I was surprised at how good of a downbeat, vaguely creepy noir it was turning out to be...until the entire movie was undercut by an ill-advised moralistic ending. Financed and shepherded by Humphrey Bogart's production company, Santana, and starring Bogey protege John Derek (I had no idea Bogart gave the kid his stage name), The Family Secret was scripted by Francis M. Cockrell (Inferno, Rhubarb, and lots of episodic TV, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Perry Mason) and Andrew Solt (The Jolson Story, Little Women, Whirlpool, Bogey's and Nick Ray's classic noir, In a Lonely Place), from a story by Marie Baumer and James P. Cavanagh (TV like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Suspense; the marvelous Margaret Rutherford Marple, Murder at the Gallop). Employing a classic noir convention--the deadpan narration of the doomed lead character--Derek's voiceover here plays not at all unlike a junior-grade Sunset Boulevard, as the rich, bored killer/man-slaughterer peevishly kvetches about events not working out to his satisfaction after he kills his best friend. The plot line is straightforward enough, with the nice twist of having the unintended patsy, Bissell, die on the witness stand, but the clever dialogue really puts the movie into another class, with a strange, zombie-like blankness to Derek's bothersome aimlessness that's decidedly unsettling. Here's a picture of a "perfect" 50s family--rich, influential, and attractive (well, at least Derek)--but underneath there's moral rot: Derek is a weak son, made that way, his parents eventually admit, because they coddled and sheltered him from ever making any unpleasant decisions. And when he commits a crime, his scheming mother, one of the town's brightest stars, advises breaking the law--would June Cleaver do that???--while his pillar of the community/upholder of the law attorney father, sits quietly and lets the pair take down the whole family. Derek can get any girl he wants...but nobody wants him: not Lee, who sees how spineless and useless he is ("You aren't anything," she states), nor all the girls he calls for dates when he's tired with his new moral quagmire. His father continues to makes jokes, but the bitterness is turned inward at the betrayal of his own beliefs, while his socializing mother starts staying at home all the time. As Derek creepily states, after Bissell croaks on the stand--a "murder" chalked up to not just Derek this time, but to Cobb and O'Brien-Moore, as well--the family then spends a "weird afternoon" of Mom just...crying and Derek feeling vaguely unsettled. That's what bothers this bored killer brat: he spent a "weird afternoon" with his parents...not that he's directly responsible for the situation that killed Bissell.
Beginning the movie with a murder, and having Derek morosely speak of "stupid instincts," immediately sets the movie on a downward ethical spiral that never lets up, as he and his parents continue to dig their amoralistic hole deeper and deeper. The noir notion of crushing Fate pursuing a doomed character straight to hell is reinforced throughout the increasingly tense story, as the D.A., making chitchat at O'Brien-Moore's birthday party, confidently states that they'll get the killer no matter if Bissell is found innocent or not: killers always trip up, as Derek and O'Brien-Moore blanche in horror. As Derek falls deeper into a psychological morass, his outward personality de-evolves, too: he becomes a drunk and an abusive letch, who tries to force himself on Lawrence (he gets his face smartly smacked for it) before he takes cheap slut Alexander away from his mother's party for an all-too-obvious party of his own with her (his father and mother can barely look at him when they acknowledge his "disgraceful" sexual display). For such a seemingly simply murder-mystery story, there's a surprisingly layered approach to The Family Secret from the scripters and sometimes-spotty director Henry Levin, that just keeps getting more and more interesting as it goes along to what we think will be the pay-off it--and the characters--so richly deserve.
And that's when The Family Secret goes disastrously wrong. SPOILERS ALERT! Considering the care that went into creating this deeply cynical, strangely vibed portrait of an inwardly corrupted 1950s American family, and in particular its crybaby, bored killer son who laments his lost peace of mind more than his dead best friend, why, oh why couldn't The Family Secret have continued down this path to its logical conclusion: that regardless of whether or not Derek killed Art out of self-defense, his subsequent moral failure in reporting the crime sets into motion the eventual destruction of him and his whole family? I get that the production code probably called for some kind of "happy ending" here...but other filmmakers creatively skirted that requirement. Why must The Family Secret end on a completely anti-climatic note when Derek realizes, "Gee whiz...I guess I did do wrong...I better confess everything," with Lawrence suddenly in love with him and forgiving him and Derek only getting sent up the river for nothing more than a 2-spot? That's the sum total of what the movie wants to say? "Say you're sorry and everything is okay,"...even when "everything" is the death of two people? I can get that from the Boy Scout manual. If The Family Secret is 97% noir--and fairly intriguing, intelligent noir, at that--it couldn't stay faithful to that aesthetic for the last 3%? Derek couldn't have confessed to killing Art willfully after all, as his made-up suburban house of cards finally comes tumbling down? He couldn't have killed Lawrence in a combination of boredom and a fit of jealous rage after she rejected him for the umpteenth time? How about the parents going down for lying about their weasel son's crimes, as he skips off scott-free? How about Cobb having to kill his own son, when Derek's further moral prevarications cause the death of someone else...like maybe his mother. Any of those scenarios would have made for a socko noir ending for The Family Secret. Instead, we get feckless, feeble, phony, feel-good moral redemption at the lips of Lawrence; a kiss on the cheek for meek, "good boy" Derek, while the swell pal jail guard, sheepishly grinning, gives the kids some privacy while they neck. What a rotten time to go all soft.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.