Francis Lederer was such a scrumptiously lickable bit of Euro eye candy in his 1930s films that I was a bit surprised to see how grim and haggard he looked in The Madonna’s Secret of 1946. He’s as gaunt as Dracula here, his sucked-in cheekbones like those of a masochistic model’s who’s had her back molars wrenched out. Oddly, Lederer would go on to play Dracula some twelve years later (in 1958’s The Return of), but he seemed a relatively healthy Count in that later film. In The Madonna’s Secret, however, he looks like Dracula after a bad bout of flu. Those high, hollow cheek ridges are as severe as the peaks of the Rockies; you could swing ropes from those taut rims and rappel down his jaw line. Prop some scaffolding on them and Michelangelo could have climbed aboard to reach the Sistine ceiling.
My mention of scaffolded artists and toothless models is apt for The Madonna’s Secret, in which Lederer stars as a crazed Parisian painter, living in New York, who’s suspected of killing the ladies who pose for him. I came across this obscure little noir during one of my late-night YouTube rambles; and all I can say is that if it’s not yet a cult film, it oughta be. It’s the barmiest movie I’ve seen in ages, and it’s utterly unself-conscious about it. Tossed into its bubbling mad-artist brew of a plot are dead models, a mysterious portrait, even more mysterious phone calls, a gun in a handbag, John Alton’s glorious cinematography, and a nightclub act that features a lady warbling a song while a guy throws knives at her (she smiles dreamily every time a knife smacks the board she leans on). That last item alone should ramp this movie right off the cult meter. It has nothing to do with the story, occupying its own loopy little roped-off space within, but its bizarrely Freudian aura infects the whole film. The mad artist draws a picture of the knife-targeted lady, only with the knife actually stuck in a bleeding breast; it’s utterly graphic and I’m curious to know how that image got past the Breen office to be placed before our already goggling eyes.
The story itself flows dreamily along, not making any sense but packing enough red herrings to salt down and sell by the barrel. The loony Lederer paints the secretive title Madonna, a portrait representing a model who ended up murdered. As have his other models. He takes them for speedboat rides on the Hudson River, after which their very dead bodies are found washed ashore. People do get suspicious. Among the suspecting are a dead model’s snooping sister who wants to implicate Lederer; a nosy drama critic who decides to play detective; a rich, much-divorced socialite who makes a play for the painter; a creepy little art gallery owner whose art knowledge extends to identifying the Venus de Milo (look, even I can identify the Venus de Milo); and the loony artist’s even creepier little mother, who fusses over her grown son as if he still needed his shoe laces tied. I laughed my head off when district attorney Pierre Watkin asked the sister to help in the investigation; I half-expected he would offer a hearty handclasp and a calendar illustrating “Spring in Lompoc.” It would not have seemed out of place here.
What’s not to like in this film? Lederer has gauzy flashback dreams of screaming models being flung from speedboats, with an Eiffel Tower thrown in to symbolize Paris. Ann Rutherford as the snooping sister enters her findings in agitated journal entries, which are voiced on the soundtrack in breathlessly Dear-Diaryish prose (“I hate him with all the force of my being!” she exclaims as she scribbles). The drama critic periodically parks himself next to his secretary’s desk and elaborates on the story-till-now, stopping the proceedings dead cold every time he pulls up a chair. Heightening the melodrama is the great Alton’s black-and-white cinematography, which shimmers with a mad, delirious glow, as if the celluloid were running a fever. Alton finds his perfect reflective surface in Lederer’s stark cheek bones (they must have been carved into his face with the knife-thrower’s blades), the lighting bouncing off those creased edges like one of those speedboat-lobbed ladies hurled into the Hudson.
If I have any quibble to offer, it’s that Rutherford as the heroine is just too stubby and round-faced and perky for the film’s noirishly sprawling gloom. She lacks the bone structure the genre requires. Noir ladies should be as dour and sleek as greyhounds; they should slouch against bar stools, suck in their cheeks, and look at the world through cool, hard eyes. But Rutherford, who was so charming in comedy (I love her in Pride and Prejudice and the Whistling series), is a Pomeranian scratching at the back door, impatient for its morning walk; she’s too bright and eager for slouching poise. I preferred Gail Patrick as the stinking rich divorcée, swanking about in sequins and feathers and alternating between all-black and then all-white clothing ensembles. Patrick’s as tall as an Amazon, has a wonderful, throaty laugh, sucks on a cigarette as if it were a hookah, and slouches against furniture as if sculpted on it. She’s way too sophisticated for all the malarkey fizzing around her, and you sense that she doesn’t take it seriously; but she does seem to be having a good time.
Everyone else, though, plays it very seriously. Cast members grab at whatever the film flings their way and then race with it to the goalposts. Rutherford’s eyes shine with puppyish adoration as she gazes at the anguished Lederer, who moons at the piano whenever he hears that another model has hit the waves (“I’m a bit gloomy this evening,” he says). Lordy, even Watkin is serious. Did anyone read the whole script? There are enough plot holes to call for a road crew. Why does Lederer’s character have an Austrian accent but his mom an American one? Why is the drama critic involved? What does he find out? And why does he disappear halfway through the film, never to be seen again (hey, anyone check those speedboats)?
Don’t sweat it, I say; sit back, enjoy, never mind about sense. The Madonna’s Secret is a lot of fun and I’d love to tell you the ending, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. It’s floating around YouTube, so grab it; it’s as mad as noir gets. Maybe madder. Produced, per the credits, by Republic Studios. THE Republic studios? Maker of cheap thrillers and even cheaper Westerns? What the hell, throw in the Indians and covered wagons.
You can find out all about The Madonna’s Secret by clicking right here.