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Secret Beyond the Door

03 Jan

In the past I’ve written about a few Freudian thrillers from the 40s, Spellbound and The Dark Mirror for sure. The decade has many examples though as it was such a fashionable subject and seemed to blend effortlessly into the world of film noir. Looked at now, from a modern perspective, the cod psychological mumbo jumbo of these films is fairly risible. However, films are first and foremost an entertainment medium; we don’t watch them to gain, for example, a deeper insight into psychoanalysis. So, when a movie like Secret Beyond the Door (1947) presents us with a dubious scientific explanation for the odd behaviour of its characters it’s not really fair to criticize it too heavily on that score. Fritz Lang’s film really is an exercise in style over substance – the look, feel and mood of the picture is what carries it, not the plausibility (or lack of it) of the story or the questionable motives of the main characters.

The basic premise is a familiar one, various forms having been used over the years in a variety of films. There’s a young woman on vacation who meets a mysterious yet attractive stranger, falls in love, marries and, after a time, discovers that all is not what it initially seemed. The woman in this particular movie is Celia (Joan Bennett), an heiress who’s recently found herself alone in the world and has taken off on a trip to Mexico before returning to the States and settling down to a life of bland respectability. However, Celia is not the usual, run-of-the-mill innocent abroad. Contrary to appearances, there’s a darker, almost perverse, side to her nature that soon becomes apparent. Quite by chance, she witnesses the flare-up of a knife fight between two local men. This isn’t some matter of slighted honour, more a duel of passion; the men are vying for the affections of a woman. Instead of doing the sensible thing and walking away, Celia is rooted to the spot, fascinated by the events before her. The viewer isn’t the only one struck by the hungry, predatory look in Celia’s eyes as she absorbs this primitive ritual – another bystander’s attention is drawn to her. He is Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), an architect of patrician background. To cut to the chase, Celia and Mark fall in love, marry and move back to his out-of-town home in the States. Even before they leave Mexico though, it’s apparent that all isn’t well with Mark; he has a tendency to withdraw from intimacy without explanation. As the couple embark on their new life the skeletons begin to rattle in the family cupboard and, bit by bit, secrets and hints of a dark past start to emerge. Celia’s husband is a deeply troubled man who appears to have a morbid obsession both with historical murders and the rooms in which those crimes took place, while questions linger over the death of his first wife. The true roots of the problem are not immediately obvious but, even so, the new bride slowly comes to suspect that her own life may be in danger.

 

The script calls for a good deal of irrational behaviour on the part of the main characters, enough to sink many a movie. Despite that, the film still works and is pretty successful as a piece of highly strung noir melodrama. This is largely due to the work of director Lang and cameraman Stanley Cortez, between them creating a stylish and stylized visual experience. The opening segment in Mexico has a dreamy, unreal quality that perfectly fits the mood of the lovestruck Celia. As soon as the action switches to the Lamphere estate the look and feel alters too, the uneasy romanticism of the south of the border scenes switches to something more akin to the gothic nightmare that begins to unfold in Celia’s shadowy and threatening new home. It’s this aspect of the film that leads to comparisons being drawn between it and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. On the surface, there are parallels: newlyweds haunted by the spectre of the husband’s murky past, a family home where unwelcome memories seem to lurk in every shadow, and a distinctly odd household. For all that, the two movies are really quite different in essence, chiefly as a result of Joan Bennett’s characterization of Celia. Unlike Joan Fontaine’s second Mrs DeWinter, Joan Bennett is a tougher and more worldly woman. I’ve already mentioned the dark side of Celia that’s apparent from early on, but the perverse side of her character is further developed as the story progresses. A weaker, and maybe a saner, woman would likely hightail it back to the safety of the city when her husband first begins to exhibit signs of serious psychological imbalance. But not Celia; she chooses to stand her ground, whether through raw courage or her own fascination with danger, and stick it out to the bitter end. One of Bennett’s great strengths as an actress, and very likely the reason Lang chose to work with her so often, was her ability to combine feminine allure with the grit necessary to hack it in a grim world. I found Michael Redgrave’s performance much less satisfactory though. My biggest issue was that I never felt entirely convinced by his transition from the cool aristocrat to bug-eyed loon. However, in all fairness, this kind of thing is rarely especially easy to pull off. His best moment occurs in the short fantasy scene where he imagines himself on trial for murder. With a jury of literally faceless men looking on, Redgrave plays both prosecutor and defendant in the ultimate trial of conscience.

For a long time Secret Beyond the Door was one of Lang’s most elusive titles on DVD, at least in an acceptable form. As the rights in the US now appear to reside with LionsGate it’s probably not a good idea to hold your breath waiting for anything to appear from that source. There’s been a French disc available for a while but it suffers from the old problem of forced subtitles. However, last year saw two releases that fit the bill: a budget disc from Italy and a nicely packaged edition from Exposure in the UK. Both seem to use the same transfer for the movie, but the UK release sees more effort put into overall presentation. The movie gets a nice remastered transfer with very good contrast (vital for a film like this) and only the odd speckle here and there. For extras we get an extensive gallery and filmographies. There’s also a 12 page booklet that reproduces the original poster art on the cover and contains three separate articles by David Hughes, James Oliver and Claudette Pyne. In this era of cost-cutting MOD programmes, it’s a credit to a small outfit like Exposure that they have both the will and ability to produce a thoughtful edition like this. Anyone interested in collecting classic movies really ought to consider putting a bit of business their way and support such efforts. This film tends to be glossed over somewhat when Lang’s work is discussed, probably due to the absurdity of certain aspects of the plot, but it’s actually very enjoyable. Joan Bennett gives a good performance in the lead and Lang directs with great skill and style. Anyone who is interested in film noir, Fritz Lang, or just classy 40s movies should have a copy of this in their collection.

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20 Comments

Posted by on January 3, 2012 in 1940s, Film Noir, Fritz Lang

 

20 responses to “Secret Beyond the Door

  1. le0pard13

    January 3, 2012 at 2:52 am

    Fine film examination, Colin. Obviously, I need to take in more Fritz Lang films. I remember Joan Bennett from the gothic ‘Dark Shadows’ TV soap opera as a kid, but little of her earlier film work. You got me intrigued, alright. Thanks.

     
    • Colin

      January 3, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Well I’m a big fan of Lang’s work so I’d certainly recommend checking out as much of his stuff as possible. His US movies don’t appear to get the same critical praise as his earlier European work but I actually prefer them; there are weaker efforts of course but some absolute gems too.
      There was a time when it was hard to get your hands on certain titles, but just about all his US films can now be picked up (from a variety of countries, it has to be said) in generally good editions.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Michael.

       
  2. cavershamragu

    January 3, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Great review Colin and you’re spot on about Bennett’s personae marking the major difference between this and the more submissive Joan Fontaine versions of REBECCA and JANE EYRE from those years. I actually ended up getting th Italian DVD release but I’m glad that the transfer quality is basically the same as this means I can watch the dubbed version with my Dad which is always a bonus!

     
    • Colin

      January 3, 2012 at 12:10 pm

      Heh! I was just over at your place commenting on your D.O.A. post – great stuff.

      Yeah, the transfers of the Italian and UK discs look pretty much identical to me, both are more than acceptable. There are some excellent Italian releases out there too; I recently picked up Sinister Films’ version of Lang’s House by the River and Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet, and they both represent a major improvement on the US releases of those films.

       
      • cavershamragu

        January 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm

        Great news about those two other films – I was reading your comments over at Roobarb and am greatly tempted to get both through Amazon Italy. It would be great to have a decent copy of SCARLET which i think I saw once about 20 years on BBC2 and have not clapped eyes on since though I am a huge fan of John Alton’s work.

         
        • Colin

          January 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm

          In my opinion, they’re both worth picking up. The two films have had good releases in France and I’d say the transfers are about the same (although I’ve only seen screencaps of the French Slightly Scarlet) but there’s no issue with forced subs.

           
  3. Mike Sutton

    January 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Nice piece. This was on over Christmas on BBC 2 and I stayed up till the middle of the night to watch it. Fascinating film but I didn’t think it quite worked. Have you seen Lang’s 1950 film “House By The River”? That’s another interesting one which doesn’t quite come together for my money.

     
    • Colin

      January 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm

      Thanks Mike.
      I’ve seen House by the River a few times and was planning on doing a piece on it in the near future since I recently picked up the new Italian disc (third time I’ve bought the film – madness!).
      I’d say it’s quite a visually arresting film, with a very heavy atmosphere. And I agree it doesn’t completely work. For me anyway, Louis Hayward has never been a lead that I particularly liked, and that’s part (but by no means all) of the problem.

       
  4. chrisk

    January 4, 2012 at 1:26 am

    I have seen some films of Louis Hayward and have not liked any of them. We are of the same opinion!

     
    • Colin

      January 4, 2012 at 9:52 am

      I’m not sure why but some actors just don’t do it for me. I guess there’s some quality about them that simply doesn’t appeal or grates. I haven’t seen Hayward in a huge number of movies so I’m willing to accept that I may be missing something – I don’t claim he was a poor actor, but he did have an air of smugness or conceit which never allowed me to feel much sympathy for the characters he played.

       
  5. chrisk

    January 4, 2012 at 10:03 am

    I am a huge fan of swashbuckling movies starring, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Stewart Granger etc.
    Louis Hayward starred in quite a number of movies of this genre and he wasnt impressive or appealing in any I have seen (mostly B grades).

     
    • Colin

      January 4, 2012 at 10:12 am

      Oh he’s certainly not up there with the likes of Flynn, Granger or Power for me either.

      To be fair though, I remember seeing him in a showing of the 1939 version of The Man in the Iron Mask directed by James Whale, alonside Joan Bennett (that woman again!), and thought it was a good movie. Of course that was a very long time ago and my memory may be playing tricks on me. It’s coming out on DVD in the States – or maybe has been released just lately – so I’ll probably pick that one up and see if I still feel the same.

       
  6. chrisk

    January 4, 2012 at 10:31 am

    I saw The Man In The Iron Mask some time ago and felt it was the weakest of the lot, practically
    minimal swashbuckling! A few of his movies I have seen wasnt that swashbuckling.and were disappointing. Apparently we rarely read or heard about him, maybe he wasnt that famous during his time, or else my old man would have rave about him.

     
    • Colin

      January 4, 2012 at 10:48 am

      True, I know next to nothing about Hayward as an individual, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that he wasn’t popular back in the day. People do tend to get forgotten with the passage of time, especially if their pictures have fallen out of favour or are no longer considered “fashionable”, or if they had a private life that didn’t regularly hit the headlines. Actually, I ought to do a little research on this guy.

       
  7. cavershamragu

    January 4, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Hayward is a character that seemed best suited to villains rather than heroes perhaps as he tended to exhude a slightly lofty or untrustworthy air in his movies I find (not to be toohard on the guy) – a case in point in THE SAINT IN NEW YORK where his interpretation, while perfectly valid, is remarkably at variance with the way Sanders played it and while in theory you could argue more accurate to the books is also much less charismatic in as much as the character is just darker and more elusive. On the other hand, in the 1945 AND THEN THERE WERE NONE his equivolcal persona was entirely suited to a film in which you are not meant to be sure who to trust – and he’s great as a bit of a cad in the often unjustly neglected LADIES IN RETIREMENT, starring opposite his then wife Ida Lupino.

     
    • Colin

      January 4, 2012 at 12:39 pm

      That’s a fair point. I’m not especially fond of Hayward’s Saint when compared to Sanders’ portrayal. I’ll grant it may be closer to what Charteris had in mind but I still prefer Sanders in the role.

      And yes, Hayward was fine in Clair’s And Then There Were None – he played the role as it had to be played.

       
  8. muriel

    January 9, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Try Louis Hayward in “Pirates of Capri”. He’s great swashing around in that film. It’s great entertainment.
    Regarding Redgrave in this film. For whatever reason, he had great difficulty making this film and despised his performance. He was pretty disillusioned with Hollywood film making. To be fair, his dialogue is pretty clunky and he knew it. One has to admire his ability to pull it off so well. It’s weirdly entertaining, a brilliant flop. I never miss a Lang movie, silent, German or American.

     
    • Colin

      January 9, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Thanks for the tip Muriel; I’ll add that one to the list.

      I think Redgrave’s dissatisfaction with Secret Beyond the Door actually comes through in the movie as he never appears comfortable in his role. I’m not sure anyone was too happy about it as I’ve read that Joan Bennett had some harsh words to say about the finished product too.
      Anyway, despite what the stars may have felt, I reckon the movie is quite good and rises above the irrational aspects of the script. Of course, I like nearly all Lang’s US pictures; even a bit of a dud like Cloak and Dagger has its moments.

       
  9. Rod Croft

    May 29, 2012 at 12:35 am

    Hi Colin,

    Recently, I happended to be reading an interview Fritz Lang gave to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for their book, “The Celluloid Muse” (copyright 1969), in which Lang comments upon “The Secret Beyond The Door”, and thought you may be interested..

    Lang states that it was “a very unfortunate adventure”, and, “….. this one went wrong from the beginning”. He further comments that, “while the the basic idea…..was good, our solution, which involved talking someone into a radical change of outlook, was too glib, too slick”. Lang accepts that much of the fault to be “probably”, his, but also has a few unkind words for the cameraman. Adding to his problems, he mentions that, at the time, “Joan Bennett wanted to divorce her husband”.

    Sometimes Directors can be over critical of their films and perhaps, while it was an unhappy experience for Lang, (“I never wanted to do it anyway”), this does not prevent his admirers from enjoying the film.

     
    • Colin

      May 29, 2012 at 9:58 am

      Thanks Rod. That is interesting to hear Lang’s own dissatisfaction with aspects of the movie and its production. It’s curious too how often a troubled production can result in a finished film that still works pretty well.

       

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