The Secret of the Loch
Something of a cheap, quickie cash-in – the sort of thing one might later expect from Roger Corman, only cheaper still – as the headlines grabbed by the elusive Loch Ness Monster the previous year led to its first cinematic starring role. It probably wasn’t even especially prolific at the time, but The Secret of the Loch now gets mentioned, if at all, as a less-than-auspicious footnote to David Lean’s early editing career. Otherwise, it’s dismissed as all-round amateurish and inept. Which is a little unfair.
Daily Mail October 19 1933: Whether people believe in the existence of a Loch Ness “Monster” or not, Highlanders are convinced that the watery depths harbour some fantastic, and abnormal creature.
A little, as while this “effort” from actor and sometime director Milton Rosmer offers fitful entertainment, the script from Billie Bristol and Charles Bennett – the latter later of a slew of pre-US Hitchcocks (spanning more than a decade from Blackmail to Foreign Correspondent) – often shows a level of wit less reflected in the picture’s surrounding production elements.
The modern-era Nessie fad began in 1933, then, and later legendary accounts in film and TV would include associating it with Sherlock Holmes (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), Doctor Who (Terror of the Zygons) and Jack the Ripper (Amazon Women on the Moon). Oh, and Ted Danson. Hitherto, we can’t trust anything said by Saint Columba, obviously (his missive issued pre- the 1700 Event), and we must assume de facto doubtfulness regarding anything post-Darwin that doubles down on a notional prehistoric creature somehow surviving. Aldie Mackay’s ’33 sighting referenced an enormous creature with the body of a whale. It seems Mackay had been aware of the tradition of a creature in the Loch, but any reference to it as a monster was likely at the behest of the editor of The Inverness Courier. Of singular note, the creature/monster/beast located in The Secret of the Loch bears no resemblance to anything in the celebrated account.
Society Member: This creature you talk of sounds utterly fantastic.
Still, in the finest traditions of authenticity, the opening credits thank the London Zoological Society for its “assistance”. I bet no one dared ask it for its approval of the movie’s content, but the starting point very much focusses on the dubious methods of legitimate science, as Professor Heggie (Seymour Hicks, overacting something chronic) is spurned by the “finest scientific brains in the country” when he tries to get them on board with his mission to find the creature, of “vital interest to zoology and science”. He sagely informs them it’s a reptilian survivor of prehistoric ages – a diplodocus – to which he receives a scornful “A dinosauran what?!”
Heggie: Throw him into the Loch… the deep part.
Despite his operating at the heights of the English class system, Heggie appears very much held to the bosom of the hairy-legged Highlanders oop on the Loch. There are thus mixed responses to the hoard of journos who descend on the area (thriving business for the local pub). Head of the crowd is irrepressible twat Jimmy Anderson (Frederick Peisley), who quickly gets Heggie’s back up, even more so when he falls for Heggie’s granddaughter Angela (Nancy O’Neil). Sample response: “Who wouldn’t be a grandpa?” (eesh!!)
Angus: Come up there. I got a drop o’ the real stuff downstairs.
If the quest for the monster is less than compelling, Scotland’s subsistence food stuff – the grog – is well catered for. Early in the proceedings, barmaid Maggie Fraser (Rosamund John) notes a beleaguered patron downing a whisky in order to get through his account of an encounter (“I saw her great neck”): “The best descriptions always come from the best customers”. Later, after Jimmy bursts in on Angela in bed, and the Prof tells faithful kilt-clad serf Angus (Gibson Gowland) to throw him in the loch, the latter relents at the sight of Jimmy’s entirely coincidental tartan tie. Jimmy’s soon thoroughly pished.
The main event finds an unlucky deep-sea diver failing to return from the Great Cave three miles down (cited by Hector Mackenzie in 1587); Jimmy bravely takes it upon himself to venture below to get proof (as he’s been dismissed from his position unless he brings back evidence). What should Jimmy find down there, but a gigantic aquatic iguana, the most terrifying beast/creature/monster you ever did see. Fellow reporters are on hand to get some snaps as it breaks surface, with just enough lack of detail to keep debate raging.
As reported in David Lean by Kevin Brownlow, the cutting room found the film “killingly funny”, especially the lizard enlarged to the size of a prehistoric monster via the Schüfftan process. Brownlow noted that Lean met Vera Campbell on the picture, though, who became part of his editing department, while the director expanded Lean’s cultural horizons (introducing him to Chekhov and an enthusiasm for Spain). Brownlow’s summary was that it displayed “all the faults of the poverty-stricken British films of the time – poor back projection, feeble models, an inept script and bad acting…” Ouch! The Secret of the Loch’s not that bad. Admittedly, as an early big-screen sighting of Nessie, it’s rather inconspicuous, but as a study of Caledonian drinking habits, it’s up there with the best.