Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My husband's dirty secret

I was just thinking about how many movies there are in which a wife comes to discover that her husband has been keeping a big secret from her. Not something like a Christmas present, but rather more serious things. Think, for example, about how Ingird Bergman learns in Gaslight that husband Charles Boyer is trying to drive her crazy. Or, how Joan Fontaine comes to suspect that husband Cary Grant is trying to kill her in Suspicion. In Dark Victory, Bette Davis learns a rather different secret that her doctor/husband George Brent has hidden from her. Barbara Stanwyck learns a secret in a rather different way in Sorry, Wrong Number, while Shelley Winters never learns the secret that husband Robert Mitchum has in Night of the Hunter. Another wife who doesn't learn her husband's secret until it's OK for everybody to learn it is Eleanor Parker in Above and Beyond, although in this case it's understandable, since the secret is a matter of national security: the atomic bomb.

Why am I thinking about all these secrets? The answer to that question isn't a secret; it's that I was reminded of all these movies when I noticed that TCM's schedule for tomorrow contains the movie Conspirator, at 8:00 AM. In this case, the wife is a young Elizabeth Taylor, who was only about 18 when she made this movie. She's visiting friends in England (pay attention to Joyce, the adult daughter of the family; that's Honor Blackman, who would go on to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger). While in England, she goes to a dance, where she meets dancing army major Michael (played by Robert Taylor). She falls in love, and the two soon get married.

Of course, we know that things aren't going to be a bed of roses for the two of them. Indeed, the director lets us in on the major's secret: he's passing secrets to the Communists! This is interesting, in that it's something that makes Conspirator different from a lot of the other secret-keeping films I've mentioned. With the exception of Above and Beyond (and to a lesser extent Dark Victory), the husband keeping the secret is keeping it from everybody, and not just the wife. Here, though, Robert Taylor's army major has people above him who are in on the secret. Unlike Above and Beyond, though, the Communists have feelings about the major's marriage that the army bigwigs wouldn't have had. They would rather have vetted Elizabeth Taylor's character, since they feel an unknown woman could be a threat to their organization. (Indeed, this is much like the Laraine Day character in The Woman on Pier 13.) Anyhow, Elizabeth Taylor eventually finds a piece of intelligence that her husband has been hiding, one which shows that he's a Communist. This naturally causes a conflict for both of them. For her, she wonders first what to do about the man she loves. For him, it's a question of whether the British authorities are going to arrest him because his wife turns him in, or whehter Communists are going to get him first because they discover he's caused a threat to them. One way to solve both these problems would be to kill his wife....

I don't really want to call Conspirator formulaic, even though the plot device of the husband keeping a secret from his wife is one that's been used far too much. Still, this movie does feel a bit like a road we've been down a dozen times already. That having been said, Elizabeth Taylor was really quite a good actress before she became a sort of parody of herself in the 1960s and beyond. Robert Taylor is handsome and menacing enough here, even if he's outshone by Elizabeth. Not that this is much of a surprise; a lot of great actors were outshone by Elizabeth Taylor in her films. Conspirator is sold enough entertainment, if nothing groundbreaking. It's made it to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, which means that you can still catch it if you miss the TCM showing, but it'll be a bit more expensive than a lot of movies.

No comments: