Celia is a wealthy heiress who has stayed single well into adulthood, finding most men fail to keep her interest or otherwise are only in it for the money. She craves a little danger. When she spies Mark in Mexico amidst a crowd of spectators watching two men having a knife fight over a woman, she is immediately taken with him. He is a mysterious figure. His personality is dark an urbane. Despite her better judgment, Celia marries him as soon as they are back in the states. Wedded bliss doesn't survive their honeymoon, however; Mark begins to act aloof. He abandons Celia on the trip, only to have a change of heart, summoning her to his family home, where all of his secrets live.
Secret Beyond the Door is a 1947 vehicle for director Fritz Lang. It stars Joan Bennett, whom Lang also directed in Scarlet Street as Celia and Michael Redgrave a Mark. The script by Silvia Richards (Ruby Gentry) owes a heavy debt to Rebecca, down to the reserved tone and the nearly whispered narration of the female lead. Too bad Lang fails to capture the same passion as Hitchcock, even if his film does have some interesting details all its own.
Plenty is waiting for Celia at her new home. Mark, as it turns out, had been married before and has a teenage son (Mark Dennis). They live with Mark's sister (Anne Revere) and a brooding secretary (Barbara O'Neil) whose face was scarred in a fire while she was saving the boy. Mark also has a strange hobby: the house is full of rooms that are replicas of famous crime scenes. Celia is horrified to hear the gruesome histories one rainy day when Mark gives their party guests a tour. All the stories of murdered wives makes her uneasy. What scares her most of all, though, is the door that Mark keeps locked and the room he won't let anybody see. Is that where her husband killed his first wife?
These murder rooms are a great detail, and they add a dash of lurid fantasy that is lacking in most of the rest of Secret Beyond the Door. The tour is the best sequence in the picture, particularly as Mark verbally spars with a college girl who sees plenty to psychoanalyze in Mark's tales. Naturally, these Freudian riffs also become the key for Celia to break down Mark's walls. Red herrings abound, and there is a pretty neat point of view shift in the final act, when Mark takes over the narration. We see his nightmare vision of a courtroom, where he imagines himself as both prosecutor and the accused. It's not a surreal twist that's quite on par with Lang's court of criminals in M, but it's still a pretty neat idea.
More's the pity, then, that the director seems to be working from a disengaged distance through most of the rest of the movie. The blood never really boils, and there is a distinct lack of histrionics or big emotions. And despite all the crazy talk, we don't get a truly unhinged villain, either. No Mrs. Danvers steps forward to become the true bane of Celia's existence.
Even so, Secret Beyond the Door is a well-made film with lots of good concepts, they just never get taken as far as they could go. It's beautifully shot by Stanley Cortez (Night of the Hunter), and so is worth watching just to see how he and Lang use space and shadow to create some spooky compositions.
The 1.37:1 black-and-white transfer for Secret Beyond the Door is mostly fine, but it's not without its problems. Resolution is soft at times, and there is a lot of dirt and noise on the print. Even so, the image is never obscured and the dark patches are nicely defined, with solid blacks, no haziness.
The mono soundtrack has a few hissy spots, but overall, it is clear and dialogue is easy to hear.
Not Fritz Lang's best, but even subpar Lang still has plenty to make it Recommended. Secret Beyond the Door is a pretty blatant Rebecca rip-off, but Lang's version has a salacious preoccupation with murder and is full of amusing psychoanalytic explanations for the same. Stars Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave are pretty stiff, and the romance never quite blossoms, but there is decent suspense to be had in the movie's middle, with the moody photography giving this tale of doomed love and unhealthy family ties its essential spook factor.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.