The cast works so well in this one. Though I am a Ruth Roman fan, I expected her flashback sequence to be the weakest because it was saved for last and she was third-billed after Eleanor Parker and Patricia Neal. Parker gets top billing and the most screen time.
In fact Parker gets the whole first half hour devoted to her character’s story, though there is a brief scene (supposedly on the same day all three adoptions occur) when she crosses paths with Neal and Roman at the adoption agency.
We learn in detail that Parker was pregnant with a soldier’s baby at the end of the war, and due to unforeseen circumstances she was forced to carry the baby to term on her own. At her mother’s insistence, she has put the child up for adoption though she quickly regrets it. A year or two later Parker has married a legal eagle (Leif Erickson) and has a strong marriage but discovers she is unable to have any more children which causes her more regret about not keeping her son.
Neal gets the middle section of the film, which is slightly less than half hour. About 25 minutes is devoted to her character’s story arc. She plays a feminist career woman who in flashback was getting a divorce from a likable fellow (played by Frank Lovejoy). Just as the divorce has become final, she learns she’s pregnant. But she doesn’t tell him about this, since he’s already moved on with another woman.
She gives up the baby because there’s no way to reconcile with her ex-husband; plus she feels raising a child might interfere with her job as a globe trotting reporter. Neal’s character could easily have been played by Katharine Hepburn, and sometimes I thought Pat was channeling Kate, to be honest. She’s the least maternal character of the three.
Roman’s arc begins around the one-hour mark, and she only gets 20 minutes, because the storytellers are reserving the last ten to fifteen minutes for the boy’s heroic rescue and the revelation about which one is this kid’s mother. But I have to say Ruth Roman really, and I do mean really, makes the most of her screen time.
It occurred to me that she may be the most skilled of the three ladies in melodrama, because she teared up the quickest in her scenes and you could feel the gut-wrenching anguish and just how tormented the character’s life was. Arguably, she had the juiciest story to play because her character shoots a no-good lover (John Dehner), gets imprisoned, has the baby while in prison, and has the baby taken away from her. The murder scene was fantastically staged, lit and played. Kudos to Roman, director Robert Wise and cinematographer Sid Hickox for nailing it.
In addition to the casting we have a gimmicky story that works beautifully. I say gimmicky because it’s obvious the screenwriters had seen A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and were inspired by it.
But of course this story is not about a cheating spouse but about an adoption. The two films are similar in that we must wait till the end for the mystery to be resolved and we have three protagonists whose backstories are revealed in extended flashbacks. I would say, however, that THREE SECRETS is a more effective melodrama because I think when you put a child, especially a helpless child, into the scenario, it’s a lot more dramatic and emotional. The viewers can invest in a boy being reunited with his mother a bit more than a woman finding out if her husband was unfaithful.
The editing is smooth, and there isn’t one wasted shot or one wasted moment. Lesser filmmakers would have dragged this out over two hours, but Wise keeps it humming along and fits all the drama into a most compact 98 minutes.
He even manages to insert a bit of semi-documentary stuff that gives us a slight break from the melodrama, between Parker’s arc and Neal’s arc. We see reporters at the rescue sight leading us through some of the steps that volunteers and various officials undertake to reach the boy who is stuck on a ledge up along the mountain. I am sure a modern filmmaker, if he or she were to remake this story, would leave out most of the reportage but I find it valuable. It infuses a tale that could be otherwise over-the-top with some much needed realism.