Grant Withers and Fay Wray star in NAVY SECRETS, directed by Howard Bretherton for Monogram Pictures.

Navy Secrets (1939, Howard Bretherton)

Low budget filmmaking–both today and in the past–has always been the most successful when the narrative takes the budget into account. Navy Secrets takes place over one day, with most of the locations being in cars, apartments or restaurants. In other words, easy sets. There’s one slightly more complicated scene in a park. The scenes are all competently lighted and, in general, the film never reveals its b-movie status. The lack of recognizable actors does a little.

What’s so smart about the film is its structure. That one night, with two main characters who the viewer knows relatively nothing about–all the viewer knows, five minutes in, is not to trust Fay Wray. The viewer isn’t necessarily supposed to distrust her, just be wary of her actions. It makes the film an almost interactive experience, with each line of dialogue, each look between characters possibly revealing information (or not). It’s a smart way to do a low budget film, to make the whole thing as quiet as possible.

The other main character, played by Grant Withers, is also suspicious. So is the entire supporting cast after a while. Navy Secrets‘s resolution is one of the obvious possibilities, but it’s never confirmed until the final moment and until that confirmation, there’s always a chance of something else. It keeps the whole narrative unsteady, especially since for the majority of the film, it isn’t even clear if there’s a mystery to be solved.

The chemistry between Withers and Wray has to do well to sustain the film, since there’s little action (there’s one decent fight scene towards the end, which is a surprise, given the one early is awful). The film only runs an hour and two minutes, but it actually seems to go much longer, a combination of it being all dialogue and all in one night. It’s not real time, but–for the most part–the viewer only misses eating scenes and some traveling scenes. The film seems to relate the rest of the characters’ evening… omitting, eventually, some story points to later surprise the viewer.

There’s one particularly nice scene–that park scene–where Wray and Withers kill five or seven minutes of the running time. The flirtation between the characters is rather nice, with Wray’s performance the most engaging. Withers is no slouch, but Wray assumes the lead in the film–the script doesn’t assign it to her–just because of her performance. In some ways, from what I’ve seen of her films, it’s her best performance.

The supporting cast is okay, unless they’re doing accents. Even if the accents are real, they come off poorly. But accent-free Dewey Robinson is solid. Maybe it’s simple–with the accents, the characters are automatically suspect, while without, there’s some added doubt.

The film ends somewhat nicely… a little too neat, a little too style-free. The majority of the film takes place at night with some well-produced street scenes. The last scene, an interior, lacks any flavor. The street scenes–with the rear projection of locations–give the film a real mood, one they should have kept.

Navy Secrets is a fine diversion–the title doesn’t really work for the content–and it’s a nice role for Wray.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Bretherton; screenplay by Harvey Gates, based on a story by Steve Fisher; director of photography, Harry Neumann; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; released by Monogram Pictures Corporation.

Starring Fay Wray (Carol Evans), Grant Withers (Roberts), Dewey Robinson (Nick Salado), Wilhelm von Brincken (Cronjer), Craig Reynolds (CPO Jimmy Woodford), George Sorel (Slavins), André Cheron (Joe Benji), Robert Frazer (Peter), Joseph Crehan (Captain Daly), Duke York (Babe), Arthur Housman (Singing Drunk) and Joseph W. Girard (Navy Captain).

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