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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective


The Third Secret (1964) dir: Charles Crichton Blu Ray (Indicator)

Suicide… or murder?

This British mystery commences with a scene where a prominent psychoanalyst named Dr. Leo Whitset (played by Peter Copley) expires from a gunshot wound while his housekeeper watches helplessly. The police come to the conclusion that his demise was self-inflicted. However, his intelligent and outspoken adolescent daughter Catherine (Pamela Franklin) is convinced that he was murdered by one of his patients.

She decides to seek help in solving the case by approaching Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd), an American-born erstwhile patient of Leo’s who has subsequently found success as a TV reporter. Since they share the mutual bond of loss of a loved one, he decides to help her out by tracking down some of the others whom her father attended to. By doing so, he gets ever closer to uncovering a truly shocking revelation.

Watch a trailer:

A slow-moving mystery, albeit of some interest

The Third Secret is another little-seen curiosity to have been exhumed from the dusty vaults courtesy of the Indicator label. It was helmed by Charles Crichton, a veteran of British cinema and TV whose career spanned more than five decades - over four of which he spent working as a director. He was best known for his comedies which included a number of Ealing Studios classics (such as The Lavender Hill Mob in 1951 and The Titfield Thunderbolt in 1953) and his final film, A Fish Called Wanda (1988). However, he also directed one segment of the horror anthology Dead of Night (1945). As you might guess from the plot synopsis above, this one fits in far more closely with the latter genre than it does with the former.

The most compelling aspect here is the genuinely touching relationship between Alex (Stephen Boyd) and Catherine (Pamela Franklin). It’s fascinating to see their surrogate parent-child bond developing amid these fraught circumstances. As with her breakout role in The Innocents (1961), Franklin proves herself to be a magnetic and disarming screen presence. Unfortunately, her character only pops up intermittently and when she’s not on screen one tends to notice the somewhat draggy nature of the proceedings.

Stephen Boyd and Pamela Franklin in The Third Secret

Most of the runtime consists of lengthy sequences involving Boyd’s character befriending and questioning Dr. Whitset’s other former patients: a gallery curator named Alfred (Richard Attenborough), a lonely secretary named Anne (Diane Cilento) and a judge named Frederick (Jack Hawkins). They are all highly talented performers and it’s refreshing for a film (especially of this period) to present them as characters with mental health issues without resorting to the usual reductive stereotyping; for instance, they all hold down respected positions in society. However, their scenes take a long time to go anywhere - and frankly sometimes go nowhere at all. This is a major issue when it comes to crafting a would-be gripping mystery. Boyd’s rather aloof central performance doesn’t help either. While he’s not a bad actor by any means (in fact, one or two scenes where his inner rage bubbles to the surface are quite powerful), he lacks the necessary charisma to carry the viewer along with him through the story.

Charles Crichton’s direction and Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography display some flair during the occasional moments when they focus on more than just talking heads. There’s a frantic foot chase involving an unseen (and possibly imaginary) pursuer which makes great use of handheld camerawork. There’s a dream sequence involving some eerily tranquil overlapping imagery. One scene which teases a revelation about a particular character (I won’t spoil it by mentioning whom) achieves a distorted intensity via some split diopter shots. The finale deploys expressionistic visuals and a gruesome act of scissor violence to shocking effect.

The film’s ultimate payoff plus Pamela Franklin’s dedicated performance just about tip it into being worthy of recommendation. It’s not a classic by any means but it is of some interest if you can persevere through its slower stretches. Oh, and be sure to keep an eye out for Judi Dench in her feature film debut as a gallery assistant.

Runtime: 103 mins

Dir: Charles Crichton

Script: Robert L. Joseph

Starring: Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough, Diane Cilento, Pamela Franklin, Paul Rogers, Alan Webb, Rachel Kempson, Peter Sallis, Judi Dench, Peter Copley

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

Once more, the black-and-white imagery has been superbly restored by Indicator. Contrast and detail levels are nearly faultless. The audio isn’t bad either but some of Boyd’s dialogue is a little hard to make out and could have been pushed up in the mix.


Audio Commentary with Dean Brandum and Eloise Ross

Brandum and Ross, who are both writers for the Australia-based Senses of Cinema website, put The Third Secret under heavy (psycho?) analysis. While they go into a good level of detail about the various illustrious cast members, they also examine the film’s visual imagery and underlying themes. Nonetheless, the most interesting part of their discussion revolves around the fact that some scenes were shot with actress Patricia Neal but were snipped entirely from the final film - possibly because they would have dragged down the already slow pacing even further. She played another of Leo Whitset’s patients.

The BEHP Interview with Charles Crichton

This interview was conducted in 1988 by filmmaker Sidney Cole, who worked with Crichton in a producer capacity on a number of occasions. Crichton reminisces about his career from his early days (when he worked as an editor for the legendary Alexander Korda) onwards.

The BEHP interview with Douglas Slocombe

This interview with the film’s prestigious cinematographer was again carried out by Sidney Cole in 1988.

Crichton on Crichton

A short but decent featurette with Charles Crichton’s son David, who served as the Third Assistant Director on The Third Secret. As well as the interview, we also get to see a few behind-the-scenes stills from the production. Charles decided to make the film after being fired from The Birdman of Alcatraz due to him falling out with star Burt Lancaster. After it was completed, he spent a long time working on various TV series and made a number of Video Arts training films with John Cleese. This would lead him to work with Cleese on his final film, A Fish Called Wanda.

An Unconscionable Thing

Second Assistant Director Kits Browning talks about the production, noting how certain lines of dialogue were dropped into day-to-day discourse amongst the crew. One line “well there’s no money, you know” was used time and time again to bemoan the lack of budget for the film. Another line, spouted by Jack Hawkins (who was plied with vodka because it was the only way to get him to cry on set) was “I think that’s an unconscionable thing to have done”. It was coined every time someone did something wrong on set.

Mr. Slocombe’s Mattress

Focus Puller Robin Vidgeon is interviewed here. He recalls that Charles Crichton and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe were both "old school" and worked seamlessly together on The Third Secret. As an aside, he also discusses how Slocombe created an in-camera shot for the film Kind Hearts and Coronets featuring Alec Guinness playing multiple characters on screen simultaneously.

Lost Souls

Neil Sinyard, Professor of Film Studies at The University of Hull, graces us with his usual literate and well-researched take on the film. While he notes the somewhat disjointed narrative, he opines that the performances and atmosphere hold it together. He also takes a look at a few of Crichton’s other (largely overlooked) serious dramatic films.

An isolated music/effects track, trailer, image gallery and collector’s booklet round out the extras.


The Third Secret is a flawed film but not without some merit. The selection of extras on offer is pretty decent.

Movie: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆1/2

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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