Originally posted on Vérité as part of their Cinema Obscura column which highlights films from the lesser known sectors of the medium which we feel are worth discovering. http://www.veritefilmmag.com/
Fritz Lang’s mid-career contribution to the streak of Freudian-laced features in 1940’s Hollywood is a can’t-look-away curio. A modern retelling of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, it is a fairy-tale noir, a psychological melodrama and a descendent of 19th century Gothic Romance of the who-did-I-just-marry variety. Secret Beyond the Door demands to be rediscovered and properly appreciated. It is a hallucinatory and spiritedly flawed film, made all the more rewarding for the oddity it undoubtedly is and the way in which Fritz Lang dives with reckless abandon into the life of the frayed mind.
The opening credits are accompanied by a blatant Dali-inspired image. The title emerges; the ‘S’ of ‘Secret’ carrying its unwieldy arch across the screen. Twinkling music gives way to a bevy of overlapping images that together convey the unknown. Rippling water reflects the clouds and stars of the nighttime sky, a paper boat dissolves into an uninviting forest of daffodils. Through this the deep husk of Joan Bennett’s voice, talking of dreams and stating “this is no time for me to talk of danger; this is my wedding day”.
This opening scene conveys much of what Secret Beyond the Door sets out to be. It tells a stock story, but immediately sets up the visual and aural landscape as the headspace of the characters, made up of overt symbolism and dreamy voiceover narration. As the film gets underway it steps back from the purity of that first scene, but retains the same expressionistic perspective where rooms, doors, shadings, and inner monologue make up a psychological map of conflicting emotions and impulses. New York socialite Celia (Joan Bennett) goes on one last fling to Mexico before resolving to settle down. In this steamy exotic locale she meets Mark (Michael Redgrave in his American film debut), an architect who speaks in frank poeticisms. The two are immediately drawn to each other and are married within days. Between Mark’s inexplicable mood swings and an undisclosed past life which includes a deceased wife, a precocious son, a controlling sister, and a Danvers-like secretary complete with facial scar, Celia is quick to realize she has married a stranger. The tipping point comes when she discovers that Mark’s theory of “the way a place is built determines what happens in it” has manifested as a hobby of his re-creating collecting “felicitous rooms” where brutal murders throughout history have taken place. And what is hidden behind room number seven, where nobody is allowed to enter?
Joan Bennett’s voiceover carries through a sizable portion of the runtime. It starts out as the guide for a short flashback sequence but soon unconventionally shifts into stream-of-consciousness. Wistful reminiscence gives way to her obsessive thought-process in the moment events occur. Inside she is fraught and confused, but on the outside Celia is resolute; a far cry from the lilting naiveté of many Gothic heroines. Her performance repositions weakness as a resolute inner conflict between the inexplicable draw of desire and her incomprehensible commitment to see this marriage through. Celia is introduced as someone who is openly turned on and captivated by two men who tussle during a deadly knife fight over a woman. Mrs. De Winter #2 she is not.
Secret Beyond the Door is a film about literalizing the rabbit hole of the subconscious and the complicated nature of desire. Celia and Mark share a mutual attachment to death; one seems to harbor a death wish while the other is in danger of compliance. The film examines what draws men and women to each other under inadvisable circumstances. Its broader psychological concerns with this arena of thought separate it from other films within the Rebecca trend of 1940s Hollywood.
The dismissive pop-psychology climax cannot diminish the film’s thoughtful and florid expressionistic make-up. The artificial sets are used as platforms by masterful cinematographer Stanley Cortez to create an endlessly shaded maze that seems to exist outside of time, space or logical geography. Characters step in and out of shrouded shadow, forever traveling to and from quarters which represent the forbidden subconscious.
Secret Beyond the Door is a deeply conflicted film about conflict with the self. When the bifurcation of the character’s desires fall into sync with the film’s flaws amidst the inherent silliness, the results are divine. Its flaws are embedded in a compulsively watchable nuttiness but Fritz Lang’s wholly mystic and even superstitious commitment to the psychological is apparent in every single shot and makes this a baroque and messily uncut little jewel.