A psychiatrist dies, an apparent suicide, but his teenage daughter Catherine (Pamela Franklin) thinks he was murdered by one of his patients. She enlists the aid of a well-regarded TV reporter, Alex Stedman (Steven Boyd), to investigate. An interesting premise–if you skip the fact that very few people would go out on a limb on the word of a fourteen-year-old, a complete stranger (he was her father’s patient, though). So Alex did know the victim, Dr. Leo Whitset (Peter Copley).
“Alex, let it alone. The fellow simply killed himself” says the PR guy for the police. There’s a lot of discussion of neurotics v. psychotics v. paranoid schizophrenics–with the focus on functionality, which is useful to the case. Alex asks Whitset’s colleague for the doctor’s patient list: no dice.
The girl does her own Nancy Drew sleuthing. Not a good time to come calling at Alex’s, though. He’s gone bonkers–trashing his house–he’s obviously torn up inside because of Dr. Whitset’s death. After that, Cathy gets more than a little paranoid herself, running away from schoolmates, and from Alex. He does seem a bit too interested in her; she sees in him the father she lost, he sees the daughter that he lost. Luckily, she knows who her father’s patients were.
Alfred (Richard Attenborough), the art dealer, is one. Alex wants to see his work, which he describes as “relaxing;” except of course for the portrait of the late doctor that we’ve seen Alfred glaring at. Then Alex searches out Anne, finding her on a park bench. He’s pretty much coming onto her; I’m starting to think he’s got something on the side, some back burners brewing. She doesn’t seem to mind getting picked up, anyway.
He gets Anne to ditch work to hang out with him. He then looks in on Cathy. Her uncle gets a load from her “I’m a stranger here” she complains. Cathy wants to show him her father’s house. Anyway, Alex is going out with Anne. She confides her social phobia to him. That night, Alex has a dream. He’s by the river, both in the day and at night. Leo appears, sort of approaching him, but he flees.
“You dream about the dead doctor too.” Anne relates, an amazing bit of clairvoyance; he confesses that he looked her up on the doctor’s behalf. His next mark is Sir Frederick (Jack Hawkins), a judge. Alex wants to recover his file on Dr. Whitset from the estate. Sir Frederick insists that their aren’t any files; but he protests too much. “It was a long time ago…only he (Whitset) knew!” Man, what did he know about the judge?
Cathy gets around to showing Alex her old house. He sees the same painting of the country house that he saw in the gallery. The uncle shows up, accusing him of molesting her. Alex almost strangles him to death. Back on the job, he learns that Anne has killed herself, and confessed that she was responsible in some way for Leo’s death.
He’s back by the river. Cathy goes down to talk to him; she tells him some details about Anne, and inadvertently lets on that there was another patient. He goes to the mysterious country house. Sneaking in, he finds a file cabinet in the cellar. Aha! So…Cathy was the 5th patient. Having got the goods, he tootles back to Cathy’s place; she’s all by herself, but insists she’s not alone. Hmm, dad’s corpse at home? Not exactly…
“You think I killed my father, don’t you?!” Well, I guess she did. She stabs Alex, “you wanted to put me away to!” Amazingly, he survives. She’s fully disconnected from reality now.
This hasn’t become as well-known or as well-received as the director’s much earlier anthology horror tale, Dead of Night. The advantage of that 1945 classic was that each story was autonomous from the frame story, which served as a catalyst for the subplots. In The Third Secret, there’s still something episodic about having a look at each patient’s story.
The central Alex/Catherine plot absorbs and touches on Anne’s, Sir Frederick’s, and Alfred’s stories, providing a consistent tone and atmosphere, but doesn’t give enough time to develop these subplots. What was the judge’s secret? Alfred’s? We do know more about Anne, which helps by providing a legitimate love interest for Alex, as well as fleshing out the mental illness theme. Had we had more depth with Attenborough’s character, for example, then the fascinating portrait of Whitset would mean more than just half a red herring (a pink herring?). Actually, we’re left hanging with Anne anyway. How can she have been “responsible” for Whitset’s death when it was Cathy that killed him? The judge is given the least attention; as a result, he’s a throwaway character.
Cathy and Alex are the main characters, so their relationship is key to the main plot. It’s strange, and very nearly creepy. What’s strangest is that he goes nutty on her twice, and reactions are much too mild to make sense. Even if we get that she’s smitten with him, wouldn’t two rages–the last one an attempt to kill her uncle–be about enough to scare her off? The fact that she turns out to be the murderer shouldn’t mean that she’s automatically desensitized to violence.
While this is entertaining, and worth sticking with, it’s also disappointing. There’s too many loose ends, and too much suspension of disbelief needed to hold it all together. Farmermouse wanted to have tea with the judge too, so he gives this seven cryptic messages written on the riverbank’s wall. 7/10.