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Film Critique: Secret Window

Updated on December 25, 2011

Behind the Secret Window

Mise-en-scène is a French term that translates to “Putting into a scene.” It is everything that an audience sees on the screen when experiencing the movie (Goodykoontz & Jacobs. 2011). This does include the actors, but it also includes the scenery, costumes, make up, hair styles, lighting, camera angles, props, and how the scene is edited (Goodykoontz & Jacobs. 2011). This paper is going to analyze all the parts to the film Secret Window, a film adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden. One of reasons why Secret Window is as successful as a thriller is because all elements come together very realistically. Everything on the screen, paired with sound such as dialogue, sound effects, and music tell as much of the story as what can be seen in the actors’ performances. This paper will be critiquing the film in a “Formalist approach,” which is defined as treating a film as an isolated project, not comparing it to others, and looking at the individual elements and how they are organized to tell the story (Goodykoontz & Jacobs. 2011).

Secret Window is a psychological thriller directed by David Koepp, starring Johnny Depp as Morton Rainey, Maria Bello as Amy Rainy, John Turturro as John Shooter, and Timothy Hutton as Ted Milner (IMDB, 2004). The movie is set in up-state New York, where the well-known author, Morton Rainey, lives in a cabin, alone, after separating from his wife, Amy, after catching her cheating with Ted Milner (Koepp, 2004). The plot is presented in chronological order, from beginning to end, with a few flashbacks to the scene where Mr. Rainey catches his wife being unfaithful. The majority of the film is told from the subjective point of view of Morton Rainey, who not only is dealing with the end of his marriage, he is also plagued by a man, John Shooter, who has come from Mississippi to accuse Mr. Rainey of stealing a short story of his. The story that Mort wrote, titled Secret Window, is based on the cabin he now lives in and was fueled by what were then only assumptions of infidelity (Koepp, 2004).

Shooter’s version ends with the death of the wife and suitor. Shooter wants Mort to change the ending of the story, although it is never mentioned how Mort’s ending differed from Shooter’s version. The struggle between the two is the internal battle between the commercial writer, symbolized by Mort, and the true writer, Shooter who doesn’t care if the story pleases audiences as long as what’s done is right for the story (Bouzereau, 2004). In reality, Shooter is a separate personality that Mort created because he could not commit murder, but Shooter could. The story could be finished correctly, if not in print, in real life by killing both Ted and Amy (Bouzereau, 2004).

David Koepp, who wrote the screenplay for such hits as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Spiderman (2002), and the upcoming Men in Black III, adapted the subject matter from the Novella of Stephen King (IMDB, 2011). He also directed Secret Window after having worked with the greats like Stephen Spielberg on Lost World: Jurassic Park as Second Unit Director, so he has had his experience directing scenes (IMDB, 2011). After reading the Novella, Koepp was sure he needed to make this movie, and due to contractual obligations, have approval of his screenplay by Stephen King (Bouzereau. 2004).

Director David Koepp felt that the most stable structure to hang the movie on was the love triangle between Mort, Amy, and Ted. Herein lies the universal truth that almost anyone can relate to, the pain felt as a relationship ends badly (Bouzereau. 2004). Mort’s feelings of being betrayed, Amy’s feeling of abandonment, and even Ted’s jealousy are all relatable to those who watch the film. In this movie both internal conflict, conflict within one’s self, and external conflict, conflict between characters in this film can be seen (Goodykoontz & Jacobs. 2011). It is as the movie nears its climax that it is learned that Shooter is a figment of Mr. Rainey’s imagination.

Within the movie, the viewer learns that the conflict between the two was actually an internal conflict, which went unresolved until he commits murder, which also resolved the external conflict as well. It is the ultimate irony, the protagonist that the audience has invested so much into during the course of the film, turns out to be the antagonist that viewers have been hoping to see fail by the end of the film.

The director uses a form of symbolism to inform the audience that everything that is seen is from the perspective of the main character, Morton. Symbolism is the use of an object or action to suggest something else (Goodykoontz & Jacobs. 2011). In this case, after the opening credits, the camera moves from the upstairs loft, down to the ground floor where Mr. Rainey is asleep on the couch. The camera then moves into the mirror on the wall. This “hint” as the director called it, might not even be noticed, however Koepp also used the same sort of symbolism before the climax. Koepp uses cameras so it seems that the audience is exiting the mirror, symbolizing that what is seen is no longer from Mort’s perspective (Bouzereau, 2004). The subtle differences in the performances of the actors are noticeable once events are no longer seeing things through Mort’s eyes. Koepp may have had the vision, but the Cinematographer is responsible for how you see what the director wants the audience to see (Goodykoontz & Jacobs. 2011).

The teamwork between the Cinematographer, Fred Murphy, and Editor Jill Savitt, cuts are hidden and the emotion hits the audience hard from the opening scene, drawing the audience in from the very beginning (IMDB, 2011). Koepp wanted the movie to begin abruptly, to draw the audience in with questions as the film opens with a close-up on Johnny Depp (Bouzereau, 2004).

Everything in the opening sequence is in black, white, Gray, or red, symbolizing how the events felt to the main character, Mort (Bouzereau, 2004). There was a camera mounted on the hood of the car. As the character drove erratically, and through the magic of editing, the hood mounted camera was taken off and attached to an arm so that the vehicle could back away to reveal where they were (Bouzereau, 2004). The audience can see he is in a Motel parking lot, hinting that it is not a good time he is looking for.

Francine Davis, in charge of set decoration, and Fred Murphy, cinematographer, made the cabin, that the majority of the film took place, feel warm and inviting with warm colors and soft lighting. The idea, which came from Koepp, was that the place should feel as safe as a womb (Bouzereau, 2004). It adds to the horror when the home is warm and inviting. If the house was a spooky mansion, people would expect things to go wrong, but not in a cozy sanctuary. Many of the film’s interior cabin scenes were shot on a sound stage. For taking exterior shots, there was a cabin build that was smaller by 5 feet in width and depth (Bouzereau, 2004). Because of the work of Fred Murphy, it is not noticeable that a small model was used for the exterior shots.

Near the end of the film, where Mort has gone fully crazy, he actually begins to see himself as he talks to himself. In many movies, doubles of the actors can be seen on the screen, but Koepp wanted to do this scene differently (Bouzereau, 2004). Mort walks around the living room of the cabin, interacting with different doubles of him. The imagined Mort stays much calmer as he reveals to the real one that he is a murderer. The real Mort, thanks to the facial expressions of Depp in his performance, seems to revert back to almost a childlike state for a moment.

Cinematographer, Fred Murphy, circles the two Depp’s during this scene, coming in closer and closer as we see Mort going crazy. Savitt edited the scene, keeping a pace that added to the feeling of desperation as Mort was trying to convince himself to turn him in.

Some critics see directors as the sole person responsible for the end result of a film.

The Cinematic Auteurist, like an author, is responsible for everything between the covers of their books (Goodykoontz & Jacobs. 2011). Some directors may see themselves that way, but David Koepp uses the aspect of collaboration to let the actors do what he is paying them to do, which is to become the characters in his film (Bouzereau, 2004). Working with well-known actors like John Turturro, Timothy Hutten, and Johnny Depp, Koepp had the actors to make a great film, and set out to do so.

A character actor is someone who plays a wide variety of roles, usually most notable for supporting or minor roles (Goodykoontz & Jacobs. 2011). John Turturro, O’ Brother Where art Thou (2000) and Transformers (2007), is best described by this title, yet Johnny Depp could also fit this description with such roles in movies as Edward Scissorhands (1990), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and Donnie Brasco (1997) (IIMDB, 2011). Maria Bello, known more recently for her portrayal of Detective Jane Timoney in the TV series Prime Suspect, has also played a wide variety of roles. Timothy Hutten is a veteran character actor who has starred in another of Stephen King’s adaptations, Dark Half (1993) (IMDB, 2011). Together, these veteran actors use their craft to bring so much realism to their characters so that the audience comes to feel like the characters are people they know, and can relate to.

John Turturro plays the fictional character invented by Mort to be able to commit murder. As a fictional character he is just a little over the top, with his body language and facial expressions, but not too much to give away the secret to the audience.

He is menacing as Mort’s nemesis, but funny at times, yet the viewer can identify with his anger over feeling plagiarized by the author Morton Rainey. He embodies all of Mort’s rage towards his soon-to-be ex-wife. Turturro’s performance on the dirt road after Tom Greenleaf and Ken Karsch are murdered was beautiful.

When Mort reveals that he has the proof that he never stole the story, Shooter shows his first signs of weakness. There is fear and confusion evident in his and eyes. He is no longer standing straight, and there is even a quiver in his voice. His fear is that if the story wasn’t his, then he doesn’t exist which is another subtle clue from the director that Shooter may not be real in the first place (Bouzereau, 2004).

Maria Bello’s character, Amy, is formally introduced when she called to check on Mort, after she had a feeling that Mort wasn’t feeling alright. You can feel her frustration and annoyance when Mort becomes abrasive during the phone call; her body language shows the viewer she is uncomfortable as she passes through the house. This same frustration is again seen when she goes to the cabin. Her mixed emotions of concern, guilt, and angst are shown as she discovers the cabin in a state of disarray, and Mort refuses to answer her as she calls for him.Bello uses her facial expressions and body movement to convey as much as her dialogue might. She moves quickly up to the porch, but as soon as she suspects something is wrong with Mort, she moves slower. The tone of her voice changes from strained and annoyed to concerned. She shows the viewer that she is fearful as evidence piles up that she may not be safe there. Once Amy discovers evidence that Mort is losing his grip on reality in the repetitive scrawls everywhere of the name of Shooter, she portrays nothing but worry and fear in her performance. Her voice begins to shake and her posture is defensive. Soon after this, Mort reveals himself, and his intent to kill her.

Mr. Hutten’s character, Ted, shows up in this scene just as Mort has overpowered Amy. This scene is the last time that eitherBello’s or Hutton’s characters are present (Koepp, 2004)

One of Mr. Hutten’s best scenes is when he stops at a gas station while traveling to confront Mort. The director uses this scene, and others to toss a curve ball to the audience. While there are events that make the audience believe that Shooter is real, there are also very subtle clues that he may not be (Koepp, 2004). Mort sees Ted at the gas station and pulls in. Both actors make it plain to see that they are uncomfortable in this situation with their body language. Ted, Hutten’s character, has brought the divorce papers for Mort to finally sign, but Mort thinks that Ted is the one that sent Shooter after him. “Where’s your friend,” Mort asks, speaking of Shooter, but Ted believes he is talking about Amy (Koepp, 2004.) It is an ambiguous scene, but it is also a very honest scene that the audience can interpret either way. Mort thinks that Ted is talking about Shooter; Ted thinks Mort is talking about Amy, either way; Hutten plays the scene where he could be seen as the full villain, or a misunderstood character dealing with the insanity of Mort Rainey. Timothy Hutten does an amazing job at acting this scene.

Johny Depp is another actor whose performance helps the character, Mort, come to life. It cannot be all that easy to film an entire movie in a cabin, focusing on just one character for the majority of the time, but Depp kept it interesting with his acting. As the movie goes forward, and Shooter’s antics escalate, Depp shows us that his character feels the pressure, with a little help from his makeup artist, Patty York (IMDB, 2011). As the climax nears, and supporting characters are telling Mort he needs to get some sleep, he doesn’t look so good; the audience can see that he is pale and stressed. With the use of his body language, facial features, and voice inflection, Depp played for the camera, to let the viewer know what he was feeling or thinking.

Odette Gadoury did and amazing job with ideas for his wardrobe by keeping him in earth colors, which added to the gloomy feeling. According to Director David Koepp, Mort’s look was mainly Depp’s idea (Bouzereau, 2004). The bathrobe he wore for so much of the film was something that Depp wanted to wear the entire film, but he and Koepp cut it down to most of the movie. After a short scene, the viewer learns that the robe was once Amy’s, which was an amazing call to go with by Depp (Koepp, 2004).

Any movie that is adapted from the writing of Stephen King, when done right, raises the bar for anything in the horror genres, or sub-genres. The Secret Window has very well developed characters and story. It is not just blood splatters and gore; it is the reasons behind the murders that frighten people because they can see themselves in these situations. The ominous music does help the audience feel the tension within the film, yet because of the décor used, the viewer is lulled into a false sense of comfort, right up until the climax of the movie. The impact from society can be seen in the love triangle of the main characters of Secret Window. Almost everyone has been betrayed in relationship, or at least has known someone close to them who has experienced this. The Secret Window shows the emotional and psychological impact the loss of a wife or husband to another person could have. While the audience is likely horrified that the character Mort has turned out to be a killer, one can understand how he was driven to this. There have been many cases of crimes of passion which were the result of infidelity. The other impact from society is shown in the character of Amy. While she is an adulteress, her reasons for leaving Mort become relatable when it is revealed that she lost a child. One can imagine the pain and emotions she felt when she lost their child, followed by her sense of abandonment by Mort.

How many times has it been said on talk shows that the reason why a person cheated was based on loneliness? Secret Window takes very tragic, yet fairly common situations, and turns them into a worse-case-scenario.

Everything within the Mise-en-scène, paired with sound such as dialogue, sound effects, and music tell as much of the story as what we see in the actors’ performances. The lighting and décor are used sometimes to create an atmosphere of comfort, and at other times, a feeling of anxiety. The music is very subtle throughout the film, so much so that the audience may not notice the presence of the pieces used. The actors used facial expression, body language, and inflection of certain words to convey their character’s emotions. This paper has analyzed all the elements that made Secret Window a wonderful experience on film. The formalist approach is a great way to look at a film, not comparing it to others, and looking at the individual elements and how they are organized to tell the story. It is a relatable escape from our everyday lives, and the movie is horrifying as it keeps its roots in reality. There are so few thrillers that stick to realism to frighten you; Secret Window did a great job at keeping it realistic and relatable.

Goodykoontz, B & Jacobs, C. P. (2011) Films: From Watching to Seeing. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

IMDB. (2011) Secret Window. Retrieved from

Koepp, D. (2004). Secret Window. [Motion Picture].USA:Columbia Pictures

Bouzereau, L. (2004). Secret Window: From Book to Film. [DVD Special Features]USA.Columbia Pictures.

Bouzereau, L. (2004). Secret Window: A Look Through It. [DVD Special Features]USA.Columbia Pictures.


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      Martha Kowalczyk 

      6 years ago

      Did good! I am so very proud of you. Great critique. You kept my interest to the end. I write this as a teacher critiquing your work. Not as your aunt. Congrats! Hope you ace this course. You can do it! Love you.


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