Mill Creek Musings is a series where I attempt to review every film in each of the five Mill Creek Entertainment DVD sets that I own. Starting today, Mill Creek Musings will be appearing every Monday on TMP! The series has been around for a while, but I wanted to kick it into a higher gear this year and make greater progress with it, so I’ve decided to make it weekly.
Today’s film appears in The Nifty Fifties set.
Jeff Cohalan is an emotionally scarred man who lives atop a hill in a modern home that he designed on California’s coast. He originally designed the house for the lady in his life, but she died in an accident.
Jeff seems to have bad luck that way. His life has been plagued with unhappy accidents and unexplainable incidents.
On the train one day he meets Ellen Foster, who is the niece of his neighbor. Ellen is attracted to Jeff but understands that he is troubled, and she desperately wants to help him.
Warned of Jeff’s bad luck, which could potentially put her in great danger, Ellen decides to stay in town and try to get to the bottom of the mystery of Jeff’s misfortune.
James V. Kern directs The Second Woman, which stars Robert Young as Jeff and Betsy Drake as Ellen. The film was written by Mort Briskin and Robert Smith.
The Second Woman is a largely forgotten film which has fallen into the public domain. It is undeservedly so; this is a very suspenseful watch. (If you’re interested in viewing it but don’t own the Mill Creek set from which I’m reviewing it, you can find the film in its entirety at archive.org.)
The film grips the viewer directly from the opening, with some spooky narration by Betsy Drake, a frantic search for Jeff and eventually the discovery that Jeff attempted suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Fear not, dear readers, for this is not a spoiler — Jeff’s death (or attempt at death, I won’t give away that answer for you) occurs immediately and the film is told in a flashback from then on.
The remainder of the film’s 90-minute running time is devoted to unraveling the mystery of what led to Jeff’s apparent suicide. Some of what is shown in this flashback seems mundane, and early on we simply watch Jeff and Ellen get to know each other.
But, again, fear not: the suspense picks up greatly as the film progresses. With the film having started the way it did, the viewer’s mind is stuck on the mystery, so the glimpses of everyday life that we get early on don’t bring down the film at all. And there forward, the film is peppered with twists and heightened intrigue. The viewer comes to question whether Jeff has reason to be paranoid or whether he’s just plain crazy.
Bringing this twisty plot to life are solid performances by Betsy Drake and Robert Young, as well as some strong supporting players.
Betsy’s character is actually quite plain. Ellen seems like a sweet and likable woman, but she’s in many ways unremarkable. She seems to simply serve as a device through which the story of Robert’s character can be told throughout most of the film. She is a major character, but her main purpose is to help the viewer understand what’s happening to Jeff, and as a result she doesn’t have a ton of depth.
Young’s character is a bit meatier, with his troubled past and questionable mental state. He is given more material to work with, but both he and Drake give engaging performances.
Since this film is in the public domain, there are some problems with the print. It often has a very faded and worn look, and there is grain of varying levels throughout. It’s incredibly far from unwatchable, however, and I didn’t notice any major problems with the sound. Based on the screen captures I’ve been able to find from the Alpha DVD release of the film, the Mill Creek print does seem to be a bit better in visual quality.
The Second Woman is a great little forgotten psychological drama. A plot full of intrigue and two highly capable lead performers make this one a success. The score: 4/5