Sometimes it’s hard to dig up information on old movies on the internet. Take today’s movie, 1946’s “The Madonna’s Secret.” Oh, I found one or two web pages that mention this little whodunnit, but the famous singer, Madonna, and her song called “Secret” seemed to dominate most of the search results. Go figure!
The film opens with a newspaper theater critic named John Earl (Edward Ashley) admiring a painting in a gallery. It depicts a beautiful young woman who he thinks he recognizes. He asks the owner of the gallery about the painting and is told it is by an artist named James Corbin (Francis Lederer). Corbin has been painting the same woman for many years, it seems. Obsessed with finding out who this woman is, Earl discovers her name is Helen North and tracks her down. A little creepy, but ok. When Earl meets Helen (Linda Stirling), he is surprised to see that she does not resemble the girl in the painting. It turns out that Helen just models while Corbin inserts a different face from his memory. The face is that of his dead fiancée. Some, including the budding investigator Earl, think Corbin may have been responsible for her drowning.
Meanwhile, Helen has a jealous boyfriend (Michael Hawks) who insists that she stop modeling for Corbin. She does end up confronting Corbin about the fact that he doesn’t paint her face. Corbin decides that he will paint her and ends up producing his greatest painting ever. At the same time, things begin to turn romantic for the artist and his model. That is, until Helen ends up floating face down in the river.
Now Earl is sure that Corbin killing his models. The cops even arrest Corbin, but he’s got a solid alibi and is released. But Earl is determined to prove Corbin is guilty. He ends up getting Helen’s sister Linda (Ann Rutherford), and actress, to pose and aspiring young model anxious to pose for the artist. This will get her on the inside and get the proof that Earl needs. This doesn’t exactly seem like the greatest strategy to me, but oh well.
The plan is going fine until Corbin confronts Linda with the fact that he knows she is Helen’s sister. But by this point, Linda is becoming somewhat infatuated with the artist. He, on the other hand, begins a relationship with wealthy art enthusiast Ella Randolph (Gail Patrick). She insists that Corbin paint her portrait. After weeks of work, wouldn’t you know it, she ends up drowned. Corbin is quickly locked up, but now Linda, who has fallen for the artist, is determined to find who the real killer is.
I liked the basic premise of “The Madonna’s Secret,” but found the film to be lacking focus. The film begins by centering on John Earl, but, before you know it, he drifts to a supporting role and we’re focusing on Helen. Then when Helen ends up dead, we start to linger more on Cobin. Then Linda enters the story, and we’re following her. Then, even though Linda is supposed to be gathering evidence for Earl, the nosy reporter pretty much vanishes from the story. It all becomes very disjointed and confusing and does considerable damage to what could’ve been an interesting story.
The main bright spot in the proceedings is Ann Rutherford, who brings a real fire to her performance. Her character is a million times more interesting than that of the reporter who enlists her to dig up dirt on Corbin. I think the film may have benefited from eliminating the John Earl character and having her be the one driven to find her sister’s killer…and falling in love with the prime suspect in the process.
The final reveal of the killer in this film is actually pretty good, but you have to get through some plodding dialogue sequences to get there. There are a few moments of creative cinematography, as well. But oddly enough, the most memorable image from the film is of a strange nightclub act where a woman sings while a knife thrower uses her for target practice. Bizarre! Ultimately, the film has a lot of potential, but, other than Miss Rutherford’s performance, lacks any real excitement.