Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Silvia Richards
Cast: Joan Bennett (as Celia Lamphere); Michael Redgrave (as Mark Lamphere); Anne Revere (as Caroline Lamphere); Barbara O'Neil (as Miss Robey); Natalie Schafer (as Edith Potter)
Synopsis: Celia (Joan Bennett) meets Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), a handsome architect theorist, during a vacation and immediately marries him. She finds herself however in a position of immense mystery from the get-go. That he can be constantly aloof or away all the time. That he had a late wife and a surviving son he did not tell her about before they were married. That his home includes his likable sister Carol (Anne Revere) but also a mysterious secretary Miss Robey (Barbara O'Neil) who has her head constantly covered in a scarf. That he likes to collect rooms, exactly transporting rooms to his home where murders have taken place, the seventh door at the end kept locked with no one allowed to enter it...
With Secret Beyond the Door, you find yourself within a sub-genre of psycho-dramatic films from the late forties and so forth which, in spite of the Hays Code, tapped into areas of psychology and symbolism for pulp melodrama which, even if it may be naive at points, now drips with a murkiness and macabre nature that's immensely powerful. Alfred Hitchcock acquired the assistance of surrealist artist Salvador Dali with Spellbound (1945) and merely tapped into the gothic mists for Rebecca (1940) five years earlier. Films like The Spiral Staircase (1946) or The Seventh Veil (1945) - between some phantom zone of melodrama, horror, sometimes even supernatural, maybe all the above - with mainly female protagonists and all shot in rich monochrome that makes the atmosphere more palpable, feeling like shadow drenched hallucinations. Secret Beyond the Door brazenly wears this as its evening gown with the opening narration by Joan Bennett describing the symbolic meaning of lilies and boats in dreams as such objects are presented onscreen at the same time, as if daring you to object to how blatant it is.
With a solid foundation in Bennett as Celia - charismatic, able to play both feistiness against Michael Redgrave but also vulnerability - the resulting story is a dark tinged melodrama where, like many of this sub-genre of Hollywood cinema, the character drama is writ large and practically decorates even the interior decor. The rooms which Mark Lamphere has actually come much later in the narrative, revealing a darker sense of his personality as they revolve around scenarios like a man drowning his mother in the basement during a flood, but long before their appearance everything proceeding it builds a sense of problematic emotional currents which Celia has to negotiate. His secrets, his disconnect with his smart and polite speaking son, the issue of his first wife dying with as much emotional baggage as many describe it to Celia, and various emotional strafes which paint the walls of Mark's mansion home. A large portion of these films are how they take the melodrama and mix it with other genres like mystery or the gothic to such extremes, the former becoming more heightened whilst filtered through the later.
A lot of these films also have very female-centric perspectives, usually with female protagonists or with a substantial amount of female side characters nearby to dominate the screen. Ironically while its now in the current decade where women have more influence and a chance in having diverse roles in films, an argument can be substantially made that the more feminist and stronger choice of roles came about in films like this from decades before in vast contrast to the gender inequality that might've taken place off the silver screen. Even if you have to skirt around the dated gender politics once in a while, the sense of dominance found in the women in this film - Bennett, Revere, O'Neil, Natalie Schafer as the talkative, overactive friend of Celia's Edith Potter - and how vital their performances are for the story are pronounced. Annoyingly though Secret Beyond the Door bungles its ending. At two points it has the chance to finish its narrative in two completely different ways, eventually deciding to complete itself in a way that feels like a compromise goes against its tone, a happy ending that needed for more time to justify or different writing to make work. It's either in lieu to giving the audience a happy ending regardless of it being appropriate for the tone, without building it far enough, or because of Hays Code concession. Because of this, the strange mood created before is dampened from what was built up perfectly beforehand.
The first event, capped by an incredible mist bound sequence in the woods, suggests Celia has been killed by Mark, which would've such a grim ending to leave on. This is less of an issue when this is not the case as, per a lot of Fritz Lang's pulpier films, plot twists like in a serial are common in his filmography, leading to one of the most overtly strange moments where, with Redgrave as his own defendant, judge and prosecutor, Mark puts himself on trial for his desire to kill her. The second time however is when Secret Beyond the Door falters, Celia trying to cure Mark of his desires for murder, a built upon misogyny that has yet to lead to actual murder but keeps threatening to appear, dealt with so abruptly in the ending. In spite of the moral muddiness of the whole narrative, and whole sub plots like the son being ditched and unresolved, all it takes is Celia to council him with psychobabble and everything is all okay, left to cosy up in the sunny in the final shot on the same sun lounger together, resulting in an utterly absurd finale jarring against what came before.
As this is a Fritz Lang film, it would be criminal to not touch upon the quality of his films technically. An auteur, he is yet someone who predominantly made genre films and works were openly about enthral his viewers, the exceptions like M (1931) standing out in their potency against the other great pulpier films. His auteurist status for me is found in how you can tell you're watching a Lang film in style, in the mood and atmosphere of his movies. Films in colour exist in his filmography, but Lang's worldview makes greater sense in black-and-white, every corridor or street with potential secrets and surprises to be found hidden in the shadows. The bar he raised in terms of style - composition, use of shadows etc. - was so high from his twenties silent epics to a film like Secret Beyond the Door that it's enough to qualify as a style of his own.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
A large portion of this sub genre of Hollywood psychodrama would not likely be added to the Abstract List or is on film-by-film basis. They're mainstream Hollywood pictures in that, even if they have overt moments of strangeness like Spellbound's Dali created dream sequence, have straightforward plots and presentations. It entirely depends on each film whether any dig into the furrows of the abstract necessary to get on the List. In the case of Secret Beyond the Door, it doesn't especially after its ending compromises the mood it perfectly generated before, even going as far as ripping off the ending of Rebecca for itself in a pointless plot twist.
Nonetheless, it feels absolutely necessary to cover these films on the blog as they're films I cannot believe didn't have a pronounced influence on some of the directors whose back catalogue would get on the Abstract List. Dario Agrneto is one - contrary to popular belief of viewing him as the Italian Alfred Hitchcock, Argento is far more influenced by Fritz Lang, and the kind of bizarre psychodrama here, including the whole subplot of the murder rooms, would fit the entire Italian genre of giallo mysteries to a tee. Cementing this is knowing Joan Bennett, three decades later, would translate from Hollywood to Argento's Suspiria (1977), having experience the psychological weirdness of Michael Redgrave's mansion to becoming the head principal of a sinister ballet school in Germany, in some semblance of connective tissue. Then there's Guy Maddin, the one man film depository who must've been fed on this sort of psycho-melodrama alongside his obsession with silent cinema. Whilst this film wouldn't qualify for the list, to tip my hat to its likely influence is vital.
A fascinating gem in Fritz Lang's filmography somewhat marred by a pointless ending, tied up in too clean a bow and deserving the murkier quality of the story. Still utterly rewarding and gorgeous to look at, but with some concessions to deal with in terms of the full result.