After watching countless thrillers over the years I’m not often surprised by a movie anymore, but Charles Critchon’s exceptional film The Third Secret (1964) really caught me off guard and impressed me with its compelling storyline and dramatic cinematography. In some ways it’s a very old fashioned mystery and the film looks like it could have been made 10 or even 20 years earlier. Instead of this being a distraction, I found the dated feel of the film as well as the somewhat stilted performances in it, perfectly suited to the movie’s overall style. The Third Secret borrows some of the most stylish elements of film noir and owes a lot to Hitchcock’s best thrillers, but there’s something entirely original about the film that grabbed my attention and kept me riveted to the screen until the credits rolled.
The Third Secret stars Irish actor Stephen Boyd and he gives an over-the-top tour de force performance here as an American television commentator named Alex Stedman who’s living and working in Britain. When Alex gets word that his psychiatrist has committed suicide he begins to unravel, but he puts his emotions on hold after the young daughter of the dead doctor begs Alex to help her solve the mystery of her father’s death. The girl doesn’t believe that her father committed suicide and she’s determined to find out who murdered him in order to honor his memory and claim her inheritance. Together this unlikely pair embark on a dark journey that will invade the private lives of the doctor’s disturbed patients and finally unveil the terrible mystery of The Third Secret.
The film features many critically acclaimed British actors such as the talented Sir Richard Attenborough and Jack Hawkins. Attenborough is especially memorable in the film as a troubled art dealer and his secretary is played by a very young Dame Judi Dench in one of her earliest screen roles. Actress Diane Cilento is also really wonderful in the film playing a tormented woman who Stephen Boyd carelessly uses in his quest to get at the truth of his doctor’s untimely death. Cliento doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but her affective performance provides the film with one of its most honest and heart-wrenching moments.
The doctor’s daughter is played beautifully by the British actress Pamela Franklin (The Innocents, The Nanny, And Soon the Darkness, etc.) and I think it’s easily one of her best roles. Pamela Franklin has long been one of my favorite actresses and the talent she displayed at such a young age is really remarkable. In The Third Secret Franklin is only 14, but she brings a lot of emotional depth and complexity to her role as the young distraught Catherine. Many adult actresses would not be able to deliver the kind of penetrating portrayal that 14-year-old Franklin demonstrates in The Third Secret.
Robert L. Joseph’s smart script is carefully constructed and Charles Crichton’s direction is very effective. But one of the most impressive things about The Third Secret is Douglas Slocombe’s brilliant cinematography. The film has a wonderfully eerie feel thanks to his ability to evoke a sense of terror from menacing shadows and his creative use of dynamic angles adds a lot of intensity to dramatic scenes. The acclaimed cinematographer had previously shot films such as Dead of Night (1945), Circus of Horrors (1960), Taste of Fear (1961) and The Servant (1963) so it should come as no surprise that Slocombe’s skills and experience are used to full effect in The Third Secret. The movie also boasts a creepy and compelling score by the acclaimed British composer Richard Arnell. Bernard Herrmann was one of Arnell’s biggest fans and often championed his work. I suspect that Arnell may have found inspiration in some of Herrmann’s own score’s for numerous Hitchcock films when he was composing the soundtrack for The Third Secret.
The Third Secret was released on DVD from 20th Century Fox last year but for some strange reason it seems to have already gone out of print. You can still find used copies of the DVD <a href="selling at Amazon for $7-10 and the film should be available for rent at Netflix and Greencine.
If you’d like to see more images from the film you can find them in my Flickr Gallery for The Third Secret
*Originally published in Cinedelica 06.23.2007