A psychological film noir/mystery. Robert Young is Jeffrey Cahalan, an oddball architect. We begin with foreshadowing–Jeff’s suicide attempt. But, let’s have a long flashback. Ellen (Betsy Draw) meets Jeff on the train from back East to California; she’s on her way to visit her Aunt Amelia (Florence Bates).
Jeff’s all charm. Strangely, Jeff’s doctor Hartley (Morris Carnovsky) is coming out on the same train. Ellen and Jeff get friendly pretty quickly. His avant-garde Frank Lloyd Wright-style house contrasts with her aunt’s elaborate English Tudor style house, just as his flightly personality complements her steady traditional manner.
Her aunt tells her that Jeff’s fiancee Vivien (Shirley Ballard) died in a car accident. Then we see all the local notables at a swanky party–the doctor, Jeff, Ellen and her Aunt, plus a coworker Keith (John Sutton), his ex, Dodo (Jean Rogers), and Jeff’s would-be father-in-law and boss Ben (Henry O’Neill). Quickly weird stuff seems to happen to Jeff–he claims he’s seen a mysterious man, plus his horse dies and things go missing–scenes accompanied by eerie music.
For this crowd I guess it’s always party time. So at this get-up Ellen huddles with the doctor; he starts to go on about various mental disorders. Jeff occupies himself by accusing a local worker of being the mystery man trespassing at his place. Keith puts the make on Ellen, “just relax and enjoy it” he urges. Wow. Thankfully, Jeff shows up to give Keith his comeuppance; not for the last time, as we see.
Then Jeff’s dog dies. Is it bad luck? Is someone targeting him? Makes sense. Even his favorite painting is altered, damaged. “Your bad luck is too bad to be true” Ellen tells him, counting his fiancee’s death into the bargain. Strangely, he doesn’t want her digging into these things. Ellen’s an insurance adjuster after all, and the wreck that Vivian died in could contain a lot of clues. Then the painting actually disappears; but that’s a (an abstract-expressionist) red herring, Ellen has taken it to an expert who analyzes it.
Then Ellen finds arsenic where Jeff’s favorite rose bush died. So now they know there’s intent behind all this. Dramatically, his house is just suddenly consumed by fire. Wacky Keith is lurking about, obviously enthused “a lovely fire” he smirks. He’s up to something. Jeff moves in at Aunt Amelia’s.
If that’s not enough, his architectural proposal was turned down. Due to malfeasance, of course. By this point, I’m beginning to think that Keith is the disturbed one. The doctor meets up with Ellen; he tells her that she and Amelia are in danger from Jeff. He’s diagnosis is that Jeff has contrived all of the mysterious disasters; possibly to compensate for thinking he’s caused his fiancee’s death.
The suspense is really thick by this point. Maybe the doctor’s right about Jeff. As though to emphasise how dangerous he is, Jeff, swerving all over the road, almost runs Ellen down. “Something else is going to happen!” he tells her. Instead of listening, she embraces him. What? Then she spills the beans about what the doc had just told her. Is that wise? If he is dangerous, this a about the most reckless way to talk. She sees him messing with gas he’s siphoned from the car. Amazingly, she just goes up to bed. He comes into her room with a gun, but gives it to her. Big sigh of relief.
Also, end of flashback. Turns out he didn’t die from the carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage. She correctly deduces that he set things up; he knew she’d show up at the garage in time to help him. In effect, he faked a suicide attempt. Why? To draw out Keith. He cunningly figures that Keith will feel safe murdering him; the police will just figure Jeff’s just succeeded in killing himself.
Now, recovered, he finally starts checking into everything. More eerie music, as he looks into the origins of his old painting. Weirdly, Ben offers to take him on a cruise…hmm, what for? Aha! It’s been Ben all along who’s been haunting, tormenting Jeff. He claimed that Jeff was responsible for his daughter’s death. But, fittingly, it was Keith who was driving the car in which Vivien died. Ellen turns up with a witness who clears Jeff, and fingers Keith.
So Keith and Vivian were eloping, cruelly, on the night before her wedding to Jeff (via a short scene in flashback). Keith, probably drunk, cracked up the car. That’s a heck of a denouement. Kind of a double resolution really. As we figured early on, Keith was up to no good; but it’s a complete shocker that avuncular old Ben was calling the shots, cleverly covering his tracks with the common supposition that Jeff was deranged. Further, Keith’s culpability went way beyond ordinary malice.
The plot in The Second Woman is outstanding. It unfolds at a steady pace, then really goes into overdrive at the end. The stuff of good drama. Virtually all of the performances work; no one over or under plays their role. The suspense is excellent, as we don’t know until the very end who is responsible for what. And then, without junking everything–Keith being the link between Jeff, Ben, and Vivian–the final twist not only surprises, but also makes sense.
I’d almost say that this is perfect; but Ellen’s behavior right before Jeff’s suicide ‘attempt’ really seems naive. Of course, in hindsight, it wouldn’t matter how she acted with Jeff, because in fact be isn’t dangerous. But she couldn’t possibly have known that. It would make more sense if she was going to leave, then comes back when she learns that he survives.
An incredibly enjoyable mystery. Unlike most film noir, fate is debunked as an arbiter of life; however, the past catching up to everyone is a noir theme that’s thoroughly invoked in The Second Woman. Farmermouse like the squirrel that Aunt Amelia feeds, so he gives this nine acorns. 9/10.