Despite its faux-Freudianism and the director’s own rejection of it, Secret Beyond the Door is without doubt Fritz Lang’s best film of the 1940s. Indeed, it is a fabulous, dreamy blend of the Bluebeard legend and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), which it eerily evokes, and, like Rebecca, one of the most compelling tortured-romances to emerge from Hollywood—one that turns on a stunning, charming, volatile, intricate and complex performance by brilliant Michael Redgrave. The film’s suspense very nearly, moreover, always gives me cardiac arrest.
The film opens in a dream. Expanding concentric circles ripple a pond as though the water were responding to an invisible stone that was tossed in. We hear the dreamer, Celia, as voiceover. Awake, in a New York office, she appears fixated on her older brother, Rick. (Someone upon entering mistakes Rick and Celia for sweethearts.) Celia will go off on a Mexican vacation, where she will meet a mysterious, troubled architect, Mark; they will fall in love and marry in a matter of days. In his creepy mansion in upstate New York, Celia feels as though she has entered another kind of dream, where his unmarried older sister, Caroline, is fixated on Mark. Rick dies; periodically, the film drifts into Celia’s or Mark’s mind and voiceover.
Mark’s mind is, clearly, unhinged. Before marrying Celia, Mark never mentioned his former marriage—Eleanor is deceased—or his bookish son, David, who blames his father for his mother’s death. “The way a place is built,” he had told Celia in Mexico, “determines what happens in it.” Mark “collects rooms”: from all over the world, “felicitous” rooms in which a man has murdered his wife—rooms that Mark has added to his mansion, conducting grisly public tours of them. One door is locked; the room behind it goes unseen until Celia finds a way of sneaking in. The “secret beyond the door” is that the room is waiting for her.
I have not mentioned a major character who is even more twisted than the emotionally damaged Mark, who wrongly believes that his mother locked him up in his room when he was a child: this is Miss Robey, whose face may have been burned in the fire from which she once rescued Mark. This is the Miss Danvers of the piece; but, whereas Miss Danvers is fixated on her dead mistress in Rebecca, Miss Robey, also a spinster, is secretly in love with the dead wife’s widower.
In the stormy dark of night lit by a blazing fire, things will come to a head. Mark and Celia: “It was a marriage like any other marriage” (Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941)—a union of strangers.
It is certainly the case that Joan Bennett is not so successful as Celia as Redgrave is as Mark; despite the character’s name, Bennett is not heavenly here, as she was earlier the same year in Jean Renoir’s Woman on the Beach. Commentators note that Bennett and Redgrave show little or no “chemistry.” But the dream elements fascinate, as do the mental torments with which the characters variously cope. Bennett’s blankness, moreover, probably helps us to accept the madness of Celia’s love, her willingness to be murdered in order to loyally keep the secret beyond the door.
Anne Revere is fine as Caroline; Barbara O’Neil, Scarlett O’Hara’s mom, outrageously good as Miss Robey.
Silvia Richards’ crackpot script is partially drawn from Rufus King’s novel Museum Piece No. 13. The shadowy, shuddering black-and-white cinematography is by Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles, 1942); the dreamily noirish/heart-assaulting score, by Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder, 1944). And there is Lang’s terrific filmmaking: the fluid tracking shots; the chilling use of mirrors; the remarkable instance where a dropping scarf—what Mark grips with both clenched hands as he approaches his wife—somehow conjures the sense of his organ coming out of erection. If nothing else, this may be Lang’s most “felicitously” weird movie.
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