Relevant, Low Budget Noir OPEN SECRET, a Favorite at #TCMFF 2019

A version of this was previously published in the film noir newsletter, The Dark Pages by author and editor Karen Burroughs Hannsberry who also blogs at Shadows and Satin. Given November is all about film noir in our world, I thought this a good time to share my experience of watching a low-budget noir at TCMFF 2019.

A packed house was witness to a low-budget film noir at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival (TCMFF) earlier this year. It was probably the biggest crowd to ever watch John Reinhardt’s Open Secret (1948) as TCM host and Film Noir Foundation founder and President Eddie Muller said during his introduction. “This is as B as B gets” Muller noted, which did nothing but pique the
audience’s interest in what turned out to be an effective, down and dirty telling of an insidious
presence in postwar small town America.

Hollywood had long resisted shining the light on Jewish stories despite the fact that the film
industry was run primarily by Jews. It was after World War II that movies took a serious turn
and, as Mark Harris describes in his brilliant 2015 book, Five Came Back, decided to grow up.
Adult stories were becoming main stream and audiences responded with
enthusiasm as did the Hollywood community who gave Academy Award honors to stories of
alcoholism, the difficulties of post-war reintegration, and the most taboo of subjects, anti-
Semitism with Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947. Released that same year was
Edward Dmytryk’s well-received, hard-hitting Crossfire, which was lauded by most critics for its
superlative cast and frank spotlight on anti-Semitism, the same subject tackled in 1948 by John
Reinhardt’s lesser-known Open Secret.

John Reinhardt arrived in Hollywood just before the advent of sound to act, but made a name for
himself by directing obscure Spanish-language films in Mexico for big studios like 20th Century
Fox and Paramount in the early 1930s. Those productions were mostly comedies and musicals
written by Reinhardt himself. After WWII, Reinhardt, who had worked for the Office of
Strategic Services during the War under the command of John Ford, dealt in low-budget
films of a much darker nature, such as The Guilty and For You I Die both released in 1947. His
most famous film is the cold war melodrama Sofia from 1948. Unfortunately, Reinhartd’s post-
war filmography is short as he died of a heart attack in 1953 at the age of 52. However, if Open
Secret had been his only post-war film Reinhardt should have been proud because it is a gutsy
production. Open Secret follows in the footsteps of Crossfire, but manages a more oppressive
atmosphere throughout.

Open Secret serves John Ireland and Jane Randolph as newlyweds Paul and Nancy Lester who
visit his army buddy friend Ed Stevens on their honeymoon only to find Ed missing when they
arrive. As Paul investigates Ed’s whereabouts the story slowly uncovers an ugly truth simmering
along the streets of the unnamed city, bigots bent on ridding the neighborhood of Jews. As it
turns out Ed had proof of the crimes committed by a gang of bigots before he went missing, a
roll of film that proves vital to getting to the root of the hatred. With the help of Detective Sgt.
Mike Fontelli, played by Sheldon Leonard, Paul Lester bears witness to multi-generational
hatred among the inhabitants of the town. Perhaps this is Open Secret’s harshest message, the
children we see who have been taught to hate with such passion that their innocence is silenced.
This depiction is starker than even the spousal abuse that seeps into the forefront of the 60-plus-
minute film. Although the bad guys get what they deserve at the film’s conclusion, we know the
seeds of prejudice have been planted in the shadows.

John Ireland does a fine job as the hero of Open Secret forging a path toward righteousness
without fear of the dangers that run rampant in the town. Ireland, who was adept at heroic and villainous roles throughout his six-decades-long career, had made a name for himself in Lewis Milstone’s A Walk in the Sun (1945). He became the first Vancouver-born actor to be nominated for an Academy Award with his turn in Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949). Jane Randolph enjoyed a
film career primarily in the 1940s, but is effective and believable as Ireland’s devoted new wife
in Open Secret. Randolph’s film career may have been relatively short lasting primarily the
decade of the 1940s, but she appeared in several enduring classics such as Jacques Tourneur’s
Cat People (1942), Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), and perennial favorite Abbott and Costello
Meet Frankenstein (1948) directed by Charles T. Barton.

There are several other notable actors in Open Secret who turn in memorable performances.
Sheldon Leonard whose gruff voice and strong New York accent made him the perfect heavy
does a good job as the sympathetic detective. You’ll also catch glimpses of veteran character
actor Arthur O’Connell although his role here requires little more than barking orders as the
“boss” of the gang committing hate crimes across the town. The most overtly hateful in the
group, however, is Roy Locke, a hard-drinking man whose hobbies include murder and beating
his wife. Locke is played memorably by Roman Bohnen with the role of Mrs. Locke delivered
by character actor Ellen Lowe who boasted several uncredited parts in big pictures like Citizen
Kane during her career.

Also worthy of mention is George Tyne who plays Harry Strauss, the Jewish owner of the photo
store that plays prominently in the story. Styne was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, but
bounced back to become a frequent television director helming episodes of such notable series as
The Odd Couple, Love American Style, and The Bob Newhart Show. Strauss is the character we
most sympathize with in Open Secret as we witness how he is consistently harassed and his store
vandalized in hopes he’d leave the neighborhood. Mr. Strauss remains steadfast, however, and
we root for him as he becomes involved in resolving the mystery. There’s a particularly difficult
scene to watch that takes place in a local bar where Jews are not served. The mocking of a man
by people who think they are better, but whose faults are evident, is perhaps what makes Open
Secret most relevant today. That and the disgust in the voices as they mention “foreigners.”

You will notice the lack of budget when you watch Open Secret. Eddie Muller joked that it was
made for about $2,000. Or maybe he meant it. The sets are bare and the score is recycled
although none of that diminishes the power of the film’s message. It has a lot to offer. In fact,
Open Secret does a heck of a lot with very little thanks in large part to the photography of
George Robinson whose work helps create the palpable dread in the film. Robinson was a
prolific cinematographer who worked primarily at Universal creating the look of many
memorable films including several in that studio’s fabled horror canon.

Thought lost for years, Open Secret was restored by The UCLA Film & Television Archive and
we had the pleasure of discovering the film with that print at the TCM festival. In that packed
theater we discovered that Open Secret is a brave little thriller that deserves to be seen.

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