The Madonna's Secret - 1946
Models are turning up dead while working for a certain artist with a troubled past, and the sister of one of the slain women is determined to bring the killer to justice.
For Hollywood, artists - the kind that paint pictures - are an eccentric lot who are subject to the whimsy of inspiration and quirks of personality. In The Madonna's Secret, Francis Lederer portrays a painter named James Corbin who lives with his mother and exhibits what the 21st century would call borderline-personality-disorder. He is a hard working painter most of the time, but he is hung up on painting the same face over and over, and though he hires various beautiful models to pose for his images, he always substitutes the head for an earlier woman he painted back in Paris who was killed. Incidentally, Corbin was accused but acquitted of her death, though as our story takes place in New York, some people in the city are knowledgable about the Parisian event and are convinced Corbin was the killer and they're just waiting for a chance to catch him on the next homicide.
This film is usually termed a "Bluebeard" story but there's a lot more on the ball than that, and in it's own small-scale way it takes on problems of obsession that are not that dissimilar to Hitchcock's later Vertigo film. The treatment of obsession here isn't as acutely pronounced as the central theme like Hitchcock's tale, rather, Lederer's portrayal in The Madonna's Secret is of a man trying to come to some sort of peace about a number of things that have happened that he cannot understand. His ability to grasp reality becomes a question as new bodies among his hired models begin to appear, and Ann Rutherford, playing the sister of one of the dead models, insinuates herself into the painter's life as a new model, pretending to be an enthusiastic fan of his artwork, but actually a bitter and angry young woman determined to expose him as a murderer, but then the situation between the two becomes rather, as they say, complicated.
Gail Patrick appears as a wealthy and self-sufficient art collector who becomes one of Corbin's models. Linda Stirling is also another model who is also a singer at a unusual New York City nightclub where she is part of a knife-throwing act. Will Wright appears a few times as a waterfront denizen who has some insight into what's going on, and in general, for a 78 minute B-movie, the script by Wilhelm Thiele and Bradbury Foote has a lot going on in which psychology and the mechanics of a noir-thriller are explored. Francis Lederer as the artist who tries to evade the mental and emotional pressures around him and to also just simply get some work done makes a fine, melancholy portrait of the alienation an artists feels, but of course this is highly attenuated because he is a suspect in a rapidly enlarging murder case. Moody photography and a very efficient usage of a limited number of sets makes The Madonna's Secret a far better film than its B-movie style would first indicate.
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Original Page July 16, 2023