Open Secret (1948)

Newlyweds Paul (John Ireland) and Nancy (Jane Randolph) Lester are on their honeymoon when they decide to stop by to see Paul’s army buddy, Ed Stevens. The problem is when they arrive at his apartment, Ed is missing. His mail has been taken and someone has broken into the apartment looking for something. Something important.

A mysterious phone call tells Paul if he wants to see Ed to arrive at a corner in town. Nancy discovers disturbing pamphlets in the apartment. One from a hate group called “The White Knight” – like the film’s title, another, oxymoron, at least phonetically – calling for all white Americans to organize. Another questions “Were the Nuremberg Trials Fair?” with a Nazi iron eagle and swastika below the text. Nefarious forces are lurking in the darkness of this small town.

Antisemitism has infected and taken over Anytown, USA. This is the message of this ultra-cheap B picture released by Eagle-Lion Films. One feels as if they entered an alternate universe where The Third Reich has invaded Main Street, USA, and there is little anyone can do to stop them.

The premise, although extreme, is not without some foundation of possibility, when one considers antisemitism was rampant at the time, in many countries – including the good ole USA. It is well known that Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford held Antiemetic beliefs. In 1939, 20,000 Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazi Germany. There was even a seven-minute documentary cobbled together from archival footage released in 2017 to depict the event called “Night in the Garden.” Although its attempts to mimic “Triumph of the Will” come off as strained, the short does reinforce the fact that such hate can happen anywhere.

In 1947, the year before “Open Secret,” saw the release of two important anti-Semitic themed pictures, “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement.” “Open Secret” goes much further. It is grittier, nastier and more ominous depicting how such a poisonous ideology can escalate into a plague to contaminate the body politic. And once the disease is contracted, there is little one can do stop its spread. Imagine a town full of Monty Montgomery’s (the Robert Ryan heavy from “Crossfire”) and you have “Open Secret.”

However, this film was directed by John Reinhardt, a director who thrived within Poverty Row, (much like Edgar Ulmer) helming such classic noirs as “The Guilty” and “High Tide,” so we know there is more to this picture than meets the eye.

Consider how the film opens. A man walks from out of the darkness into a dive bar, named the “19th Hole”. He passes from the bar to a backroom, where seated around a table is a cabal of working-class malcontent thugs. Reinhardt uses a high angle, almost God’s eye shot to look down on these men, to create a sense of tension and danger and allow the viewer to judge these men as they blame their personal failings in life on “Jews” and “foreigners.”

“The 19th hole” suggests they believe they are entitled to a better life, indeed a country club existence which would be theirs if it wasn’t for these “non-Americans” ruining their lives. The man asks “Well?”. A verdict is given: “Guilty” is spat from each member of the group. A death sentence has been delivered and two hit men quickly leave the room to execute the order.

What is brilliant about this scene is that it is an ironic, twisted inversion of the Nuremberg Trials, which took place less than three years before the film.

The next scene is a perfect, self-conscious, articulation on film noir’s visual aesthetics as well as metaphorically casting light and darkness as primary characters. Of course, some of this was done out of budgetary concerns. However, constraints force a director to be more creative, and this scene is a masterclass on how to get more from less. We see a lighted lamp, an ashtray full of cigarette butts and a cup of coffee. A phone is ringing. A man’s hand reaches to answer then thinks better of it.

The phone continues to ring. The hand switches off the light. The man then moves toward a small sliver of light from a window and anxiously peers out. Some ominous force is closing in on him. There is a knock on the door. He grabs the lamp as a weapon and opens the door. It’s just his landlady and we now know the man is Ed Stevens, Paul’s army buddy. This scene, using the source of light as a weapon to defend himself against dark forces is the most perfectly concise metaphor to express the noir sensibility.

Is this a film noir? Well, I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, but although it has the visual style of noir, it is not what I would call pure “Film Noir.” Noir, to me, is more about a first-person confessional narrative on how an individual went wrong in their attempt to go all in and beat the rigged house of the cosmos. They may succeed in getting what they desire, but fate metes out justice usually in the most ironic of ways.

“Open Secret” is more an urban Western. A clear demarcation between the white and black fedoras, if you will. Having said this, director Reinhardt does pull off a brilliant use of what is called “Chekhov’s Gun.” He introduces very early in the narrative a pleasant and polite older man, calling himself Larry Mitchell, who claims to be from Snap magazine and states he was contacted by Ed Stevens about some important information. The slow burn twist to the film is this man is really named Phillips, the Hitler dictating the town’s antisemitism. In a film where good and evil is overtly portrayed, the Phillips character is a welcome nuance that evil can come from most unexpected sources.

By the end of the picture, Ed Stevens is murdered and so is a man named “Fischer,” run over by a car, killed only for his ethnicity. In a perfectly blocked scene, we see Paul and Sgt. Frontelli (played by Sheldon Leonard) with their backs to the camera looking out a window and observing rocks being thrown, shattering the windows of the Fischer home. It conveys the feeling as if Paul and Frontelli are in a theater watching a newsreel from Nazi Germany.

I mentioned how there is more to this picture than meets the eye and it has to do with main plot device within the film – photography, specifically the idea that photographs are a document or proof positive of the Truth.

Before Ed Stevens went missing, he hid a roll of film at his apartment, exposing the antisemitism that terrorized the town. The local villains are all trying to secure these photos to destroy evidence of their crimes. Paul and Ed were photographers during World War II and it is intriguing to note that so was director John Reinhardt. Reinhardt worked for the OSS (which later became the CIA) under another film director, John Ford who was head of their photographic unit.

The pictures Ed captured are developed by a Jewish camera shop owner named Harry Strauss, (played by George Tyne) who is harassed by the locals. Strauss, also develops pictures taken by Paul when he first came to town showing children playing during the daytime. These same children are on the roll of film from Ed only now it is night and they are vandalizing Jewish property. Ed’s film reveals more crimes – men painting “Jew” on Strauss’ shop window and setting fire to a Jewish altar.

Strauss thus becomes within the narrative the channel to the truth. In his dark room he conjurers past crimes and manifests and fixes them into reality for all to bear witness. He is the real hero of the film. A man who courageously confronts and fights back against an evil apparatus by using his camera shop as a portal to develop, expose and bring to light, the truth.

This subtext involving the philosophy of photography is where director Reinhardt (and writer Henry Blankfort, himself persecuted and blacklisted during the McCarthy era) elevate a heavy-handed, over the top, high concept idea of Nazi hate taking over an American town, into not a great film but a film with great ideas. Again, Reinhardt was a master of getting more from less.

What exactly is a photograph? It is an artifact – a slice of time and space – with no before or after to invoke its meaning. We can see that an image is disturbing, shocking, indeed horrific, but we can’t understand what it has captured without narrative to frame its context. Thus, “Open Secret,” the film itself, frames these images into a Truth. Film, after all, is a series of single photos set into motion to give the illusion of reality to tell a story. The story may be fictional but it touches the viewer in a way greater than truth. Fiction becomes truer than life. It makes sense of our emotions, developing deep connections with characters, so we identify with them as human beings.

A powerful empathy fills the viewer and we viscerally, not passively, experience horror and utter shock as to how such terrible events can really happen, events which reality often fails to produce answers. There is a profound paradox in how fiction can move us to believe it is more real than reality. “Open Secret” projects this Fictional Truth – a persistence of vision to touch the depths of our compassion to truly confront the darkness which could execute such unthinkable inhumanity.

The Nazis were notorious for using films and photographs as well, only they produced images to poison the perception of its populace toward their evil ideology. However, the self-proclaimed documentary “The Eternal Jew” did not resonate with the German public. It was a box office failure. On the other hand, it was the Historical Fictional film, “Jud Suss” or “Suss the Jew” which captivated the German public, and indoctrinated millions of Germans to their agenda.

In early April 1945, when U.S. forces liberated the first Nazi concentration camp, Ohrdruf (a sub-camp of Buchenwald), the reports of the unfathomable human atrocities committed, prompted Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower to visit the ghastly site. What he saw changed him forever. He said, “The things I saw beggar description…I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”

Eisenhower then requested journalists, newsreels, and cameramen to come and capture the images and bear witness to these unspeakable crimes against humanity.

While Goebbels produced and released an edited, manufactured “truth” of “Seeing is believing,” Eisenhower stepped backed and let others come and observe for themselves – “Believing is seeing.” In essence, we tend to see what we believe, and Eisenhower had the foresight to know when confronted with such incomprehensible horror as the Holocaust we will be profoundly deprogrammed and thus believe what we see when we observe on our own terms.

The genius of Reinhardt is that he tells a story on the power of images for truth by making a fictional film which is reliant upon an audience to suspend their disbelief. He is well aware photographs, and film itself, are not The “Truth” but representations of A truth wholly dependent upon the integrity of the heart and eye behind the camera lens. “Open Secret” addresses beliefs we know to exist yet don’t want to acknowledge. It tells a story of a truth and how such a story must be told, written in light, to overcome darkness.

“Open Secret” was featured at Coolidge Corner, Brookline, MA by the National Center for Jewish Film.