TCM Diary: Secret Ceremony (1968) + The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968)
Wedged in with his fruitful collaborations with Harold Pinter—The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971)—Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony (1968) asserts itself by managing to push the claustrophobia of the earlier two films into more uncomfortable spheres of madness. It entertainingly compensates for the lack of dominating and diamond-like Pinter precision with a loose, improvisatory hysteria that straddles a line between horror and camp as it addresses serious issues with a batty, deviant sense of humor. Especially alongside the stately and postcard-perfect grandeur of the literary Go-Between, Secret Ceremony looks like the neglected stepchild, though it has its own fussily curated mise en scène, and Losey thought it would be a hit. It does share a star with the same year’s Tennessee Williams–scripted Boom!, a hyper-indulgent showcase for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton—a gassy failure that has been reclaimed as perfection by the likes of John Waters. “Deviations” aren’t surprising, though, from a director whose résumé includes films made on multiple continents (a result of being HUAC-smeared and blacklisted in the 1950s for Communist dabblings), political allegories (The Boy with Green Hair), seedy noir (The Prowler), a remake of a classic (M) and science fiction (The Damned).
For Secret Ceremony, Losey teamed with Hungarian writer George Tabori (co-scripter of Hitchcock’s I Confess) to adapt a short story by Argentinian novelist and playwright Marco Denevi, whose male protagonist has been swapped with Taylor’s Leonora, a small-time prostitute in perpetual mourning for her 10 year-old daughter, who died by drowning five years prior to the film’s action. Leonora is first seen removing a blond wig and agonizing over photographs of her daughter, and her own reflection in the mirror, in her cramped English flat. Mirrors, windows and photos are central throughout, filters that help damaged and subtly deranged characters mediate mean reality. When a mysterious, mousy woman—Cenci (Mia Farrow)—begins shadowing Leonora and eventually luring her into her palatial urban Victorian home, it is a photo of Cenci standing next to her dead mother, who looks exactly like Leonora, that alerts a startled Leonora that she is about to embark on an exquisitely unhealthy codependent relationship in which she’ll gain a daughter stand-in while Cenci gets a mom.
As in The Servant, the prison of the house is another important character, per Losey’s own statement that “places are actors.” Though it sits on a nondescript, tree-lined Kensington street, its dark interior (frequent Losey collaborator Gerry Smith was the cinematographer), decorated with frescoes and lit by scattered turquoise Tiffany lamps and full of smudgy brown and black shadows and piles of family paraphernalia, is the perfect incubator and stage for Cenci’s morbid roleplaying and sick, Miss Havisham-like sentimentality. Scarred by acts of sexualization and possible rape by a stepfather in the past, Cenci acts out memories with an empty chair (“Do you want to touch my hair?”) and goes full Method with Leonora, shrieking “Love me, mummy!” and letting Leonora preen herself in the dead mother’s minks and sequin robes. Leonora occasionally slips out of her society widow character when her prostitute personality surfaces, burping after a drawn-out breakfast-devouring or rejecting an outfit with “That’s too drab on a spring day—that should be worn on a day when it rains like piss” (a vulgarity for which she apologizes). Eventually, Robert Mitchum as the incestuously menacing stepfather, Albert, lopes in (with a “Let me in, you silly bitch”) to detonate the fragile female ecosystem, explaining his unruly beard with “I grew up in the City of Brotherly Love.” Mitchum is in Reverend Harry Powell, Big Bad Wolf mode, and Albert is surely his most despicable character, disgusting Leonora with innuendos of his treatment of Cenci (“The Wretched Lecher they called me.”)
The Legend of Lylah Clare
Albert’s smirk betrays how much fun Mitchum is having in the role, sneering at Leonora, “You look like more of a cow than my late wife. No offense, I’m very fond of cows.” That line is echoed in another 1968 auteur film, Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare, in which Peter Finch’s blowhard director character, Zarkan (possibly Aldrich’s self-lacerating partial self-portrait), snaps at the emotionally exposed actress Elsa (Kim Novak) with “Feel? You stupid cow!” Besides sharing portrayals of poison misogyny, the two films similarly explore malleable identity and roleplay. Zarkan has cast Elsa in a biopic in the role of his late flame, the actress Lylah Clare, who resembles her, though Elsa’s bangs and modest garb mark her as the Judy Barton to Lylah’s Madeleine Elster. It doesn’t take a master dot connector to link Lylah to Vertigo—an obsessive control freak remakes a doppelganger Kim Novak in the mold of a glamorous, deceased lover—and the emphasis on paintings of the dead woman and lines like “heights make her dizzy” force the issue, which might have been less blatant back when Vertigo was not yet properly canonized.
Aldrich’s barbed excoriation of the American film industry builds on the toxic Hollywood takes of Sunset Blvd., The Bad and the Beautiful, and his own The Big Knife and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. In his attempts to honor the life of Lylah (whose death by staircase tumble he may have caused), Zarkan ends up sensationalizing and cheapening it, because he works in a superficial showbiz world where the input of agents and studio heads (like Ernest Borgnine’s Barney Sheehan), and money concerns, end up diluting artistry. Besides Zarkan, Elsa, who likes to stroll the grounds in only her bra and polka dot pants, must also contend with a venomous Louella Parsons–like grand dame critic with a metal leg and the barbiturate-providing, lesbian attentions of Zarkan assistant Rossella (Rossella Falk, of Losey’s Modesty Blaise), who gives the drugged actress a sensual massage in a scene mirrored in Secret Ceremony and Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (also 1968).
Aldrich throws the whole book of stylistic tricks at Lylah, including slideshows, Rashomon effect flashbacks, blood-red border masking and a brutal concluding advertisement for dog food that ends with a riot of hangry canines menacing a housewife and which plays like an even more sharply fanged Frank Tashlin consumerism satire. Based on a TV movie of the week, the sweaty, overripe dialogue (“I’ll rummage through your soul like a pickpocket through a stolen purse”) and the odd effect of some dubbing turned off many contemporary reviewers and audiences, but a kinder view is that the heightening only bolsters Aldrich’s attack on the industry’s fraudulence. Like Zarkan manufacturing his new Lylah, Aldrich fashions his critique in the same style of its targets.
Secret Ceremony and The Legend of Lylah Clare air on March 9 and 16 on TCM: Turner Classic Movies.
Justin Stewart is a writer whose work has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Reverse Shot and elsewhere.