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Fritz Lang's long line of amazingly innovative and cinematic movies wasn't curbed by his problematic relocation in Hollywood. Seldom working for the same studio more than twice in a row, Lang continued to turn out highly personal and inventive thrillers. After his searing social commentary against lynching (in Fury) Lang examined various aspects of the law and crime, switching back to espionage thrillers for the war years. With 1944's Woman in the Window the new interest in psychology came to the fore. Lang and his leading lady Joan Bennett continued to the even better Scarlet Street, a rational murder story that is also a fantastic, fate-ridden horror tale worthy of his silent German classics.
Then the trouble started. The censor (or maybe the U.S. government) trampled all over Lang's next film, an anti-fascist warning about the postwar threat of atomic power, Cloak and Dagger. The film's final act was removed just before release, obscuring the entire point of Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr.'s script.
Lang doubled back to a glossy vehicle for Joan Bennett, which he admitted was modeled after Hitchcock's Rebecca and Spellbound. For the first time the director would follow a trend rather than initiate one, with a derivative tale of a frightened bride who suspects that her husband is a madman intent on killing her. The wonderfully titled Secret Beyond the Door... looks fantastic in stills and contains many powerful moments, but it is one of Fritz Lang's least successful major efforts.
That doesn't mean that Fritz Lang's movie isn't a fascinating puzzle.
Atypically for Lang, Secret Beyond the Door... begins in a fine confusion, rushing through an animated prologue, unwelcome flashbacks, extraneous characters and an endistancing voiceover that recurs throughout the entire film. Wealthy, footloose Celia (Joan Bennett) is saddened when her advisor Rick Barrett (Paul Cavanaugh) passes away of a heart ailment. Tiring of romantic adventurism, she elects to marry her new lawyer, the dull Bob Dwight (James Seay). But with her best friend Edith Potter (Natalie Schafer of Gilligan's Island) Celia takes a final 'fling' vacation to Mexico. The erotic atmosphere seems to draw her to the enigmatic, fascinating Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), who talks in poetic riddles and tells her only that he is an architect and runs a magazine. They marry in a hurry, a decision that frightens Celia even as she goes through with the ceremony. But Mark reacts to her teasing (she locks the door to her bedroom for a laugh) by disappearing, and disappears again when he reacts to a flower she is wearing, and yet again on the pretext of receiving an urgent telegram... in a honeymoon getaway that doesn't have telegraph service. Relocating to Mark's lavish upstate New York mansion at Levender Falls, Celia is greeted by Mark's friendly sister Caroline (Anne Revere, for once not playing a suffering old woman). Less welcoming is Mark's Mrs. Danvers-like personal assistant Miss Robey (Barbara O'Neal, who wears a scarf to hide a face scarred while saving Mark's son's life. That's right, Mark has not told Celia about his previous marriage to the now-dead Eleanor. His son David (Mark Dennis), a precocious but bitter teenager who takes an instant dislike to Celia. David is quick to inform Celia that he is certain that Mark murdered his mother.
When Mark does show up he exhibits an entirely different personality, acting alternately nervous and angry. An elaborate open house initially breaks the mood until Mark decides to show his guests his personally designed "felicitous rooms". Celia has heard of these and expects them to be happy places. They are instead elaborate shrines to notorious murder scenes through history, a macabre gallery of horrors. If that's not enough, the Levender Falls house has a room #7 that nobody is allowed to enter. Now half convinced that she has married a madman, Celia determines to discover for herself the secret beyond the door.
Secret Beyond the Door... goes in several directions at once but soon embraces the now discredited subgenre of Freudian drama in which psychological concepts become major plot elements. Various mental triggers work like switches in a railroad yard, changing Mark Lamphere from loving husband to neurotic menace in the blinking of an eye. Symbols have consistent powers, like magic talismans. And in the hoary tradition of psych melodrama, confronting the truth of traumatic secrets effects instantaneous cures. Screenwriter Sylvia Richards had just come from the effective Joan Crawford shocker Possessed, which mixes a laughable interpretation of mental illness with two or three fairly inspired suspense scenes. Ms. Richards would later write the rather schematic story for Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious.
Accompanied by Miklos Rozsa's dynamic music, the creepy opening animation sequence almost looked real when seen in poor quality TV prints of Secret Beyond the Door.... In crystal clear HD it looks like the work of Disney animators. Much of the story is accompanied by Celia's breathless, confused voiceover narration, expressing her contradictory emotions about her marriage and distracting us from the movie's flow of events. We also get a strange montage illustrating Mark's disturbed feelings about his strange situation: "We're all children of Cain". Lang's visuals easy top the silly Salvador Dalí surreal visions in Hitchcock's Spellbound, yet tell us little about the character even as he imagines himself going on trial for Celia's murder. (Yes, Mark feels as if he is possessed by his own 'felicitous' rooms). The mystery "room #7" of Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim is here, undigested; Celia's past as a possible playgirl makes her seem a sister under the mink to The Seventh Victim's suicidal 'adventuress' Jacqueline Gibson. A montage shot of Celia framed in a sitting chair is also very much like a camera setup from the Val Lewton picture, and is really very haunting. Once again Joan Bennett is the Woman in the Window come to life. Celia had the possibilities of a truly radical character. In one of her earlier scenes she witnesses a Mexican knife fight over a beautiful woman, a spectacle that sexually stimulates her.
The supernatural suggestion goes even further when Celia flees the mansion into a fogbound grove of trees, only to see a menacing male figure approaching through the mist, like Death himself. It isn't too much of a leap to theorize that this scene (just three or four shots) inspired one of the nightmares in the cult horror classic Dementia/Daugher of Horror.
For that matter, the trappings of Mark's mysterious home are a catalogue of clichés about women feeling estranged in a new marriage to a Byronic husband. The story even makes use of a big fire for its conclusion, while every character reveals more secrets hidden from poor uninformed Celia.
The fact that other details express the less palatable beliefs of the 1940s does not help either. Mark's "poetic" talk consists mainly of sexist comments. Men think but women intuit; men are human and women are animals. Miss Robey, with her scarred face, leaps right out of psych 101, while Caroline's all-accepting calm isn't reassuring in the least.
What makes Secret Beyond the Door... fascinating is Lang's excellent direction of individual scenes, and the strikingly beautiful cinematography of Stanley Cortez, that finds all manner of strange shadow patterns in both the Mexican honeymoon getaway and Mark Lamphere's House of
Michael Redgrave is handed the part that simply won't function, as Mark Lamphere embodies a stack of psycho mannerisms, not a character. If the film was not a success, it is almost certainly because we don't feel Celia's attraction for this man. Redgrave can't pull out all the stops as he did playing the crazed ventriloquist in Dead of Night. Even though he stalks Celia with a silken garrote in his hands, Mark must be redeemed before the finish.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Secret Beyond the Door... is a very good HD encoding of this beautifully filmed romance noir. There is more dirt than we expect to see, in the form of white specks, and the slightly boomy audio track has a dropout or two. But none of this precludes an appreciation of the film's visual qualities.
The cover art is well chosen and stresses the horror film aspect of the show. With its eclectic attitude toward women's mystery situations the horror film that most resembles Secret Beyond the Door... is Riccardo Freda's Italian The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. This was Lang's final outing with actress Joan Bennett. It may be the least of the three but she is as magnetic a beauty as ever.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Secret Beyond the Door... Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.