Friday, October 1, 2010

Secret Beyond the Door (Diana Productions/Universal-International, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the movie Secret Beyond the Door, a 1948 (though gives the date as 1947, 1948 is the copyright date on the print) film noir directed by Fritz Lang from a story by Rufus King and a script by Silvia Richards. I hadn’t seen this one since the 1970’s and I had remembered it as pretentious and not all that interesting, and what’s striking about it now is the sheer amount of talent — Lang, stars Michael Redgrave and Joan Bennett (and a chilling villainess performance by Anne Revere, fulfilling the promise she showed as Boris Karloff’s partner in The Devil Commands — when we saw that movie I commented it was a pity that she and Karloff didn’t get to play the Macbeths), cinematographer Stanley Cortez and composer Miklos Rosza (whose overwrought score just ramps up the melodrama to insane levels) — wasted on a story this silly.

If nothing else this film makes clear the affinity between Lang and Alfred Hitchcock — Hitch modeled his style so closely on Lang’s British reviewers in the 1930’s even called him “our Fritz Lang,” and Secret Beyond the Door not only contains references to films Hitchcock had already made (Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound) but anticipations of Hitchcocks still to come (notably Strangers on a Train, Vertigo and Psycho) even though the basic story is quite obviously a conscious attempt to transmute the Bluebeard myth into contemporary film noir. Celia Barrett (Joan Bennett) is a never-married woman whose terminally ill brother Rick (Paul Cavanaugh, who frankly looks old enough to be her father — or even her grandfather — rather than her brother) has been looking after her.

She inherits a large sum from him and her attorney and sort-of boyfriend Bob Dwight (James Seay) has set up a trust fund so that even if she marries a gold-digger, he won’t be able to touch the principal. By chance, Charles and I were watching this after we’d seen part of The Heiress on TCM — also a movie about a decently if not spectacularly rich woman whose guardian (her father, in that case) worried about her losing it to a gold-digging man after he died — and in some ways Secret Beyond the Door comes off as what The Heiress might have been if its heroine had actually married her gold-chasing wastrel boyfriend instead of chillingly leaving him hammering on her door as she stands him up for the final time. (It’s also an indication of how the laws had changed regarding women’s property rights in the 50 years between the 1890’s, when The Heiress takes place, and the 1940’s; in the 1890’s a woman’s property automatically became her husband’s after her marriage, and therefore a rich woman marrying a less well-off man would have had absolutely no legal way to stop him from running through her fortune once she tied the knot.)

On a trip to Mexico following her brother’s death Celia meets Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), a highly regarded architect and publisher of a profitable architectural journal. She instantly falls in love with him and they’re married in a 400-year-old church that fascinates him professionally. They move back to his home in upstate New York and he holds a housewarming party on the grounds — only a sudden rainstorm forces the guests indoors and Mark shows off his collection of rooms. That’s right, rooms: six rooms whose furnishings he’s (mostly) imported from Europe at great expense, all of them distinguished by the fact that famous murders were committed there — all involving either the killing of a family member or a spouse. There’s a seventh room which Mark refuses to open and insists no one but he will ever be allowed to see. Celia meets David Lamphere (Mark Dennis), Mark’s terminally cold and distant 15-year-old son from a previous marriage, and it’s the first intimation she’s had that he had an earlier marriage — and she hears a lot of gossip about how Mark’s first wife conveniently died just when he needed the large sum of money she left him. Mark gets Celia to break the trust her attorney and ex-boyfriend Bob (ya remember Bob?) set up for her, claiming he needs the money to bail out his failing journal, only Bob warns her the journal isn’t really failing and he must have some other, more sinister purpose for wanting her money.

Celia finds the key to that mysterious room number 7 in Mark’s in-home office (unlike most movies about architects, Secret Beyond the Door never shows us Mark actually designing or building anything) and cuts down one of the candles in her bedroom to obtain wax to make an impression of the key so she can have it duplicated. She also catches Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neil), Mark’s maidservant, who’s been wearing a scarf around her face to hide unsightly scars left over from an auto accident — only her face isn’t scarred (she had the accident but later had the scars repaired with plastic surgery, only she never bothered to tell anyone and kept her face concealed for fear Mark was only keeping her on for sympathy and would fire her if he found out she wasn’t really injured) — and of course the night she decides to use the key and enter room 7 she discovers it’s an exact duplicate of her room, in which madman Mark intends to murder her because all his life he’s been controlled by women — first his mother, then his sister Caroline (Anne Revere) and then his first wife — and he’s convinced he murdered his first wife.

Only it turns out [spoiler alert!] the real murderer is Caroline, who killed Mark’s wife (though the script is a bit unclear as to her motive) and is now attempting to use mind control to get Mark to kill Celia. Fortunately, Celia manages to figure out how to break Caroline’s hold over Mark in time; Caroline does her Mrs. Danvers impression and sets fire to Mark’s home, thereby symbolically destroying the evil hanging over them as well as conveniently taking herself out and allowing a weird excuse for a happy ending in which Mark, supposedly cured of his psychological demons, and Celia are shown back in love and on track to make their marriage work after all. Secret Beyond the Door was lampooned when it was new — “Because he thought his mother didn’t love him, the poor fellow developed a terrible, but of course forgivable, compulsion to kill women,” James Agee sniffed in his Nation review — and it hasn’t aged especially well despite the extravagant visual effects Lang and cinematographer Cortez lavished on it: it’s one of the best-looking films ever shot in the noir style, but all the atmosphere can’t conceal the silliness of the story or the sheer number of plot points (like Robey’s imposture and David’s twitchiness) that lead nowhere.

Part of the problem is Joan Bennett: she’d made two first-rate films with Lang (and the same producer, her real-life husband Walter Wanger), The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, but in both those she was playing the villainess — and playing her superbly. This time around she seems oddly flat and affect-less playing a woman we’re supposed to like and care about — and Richards’ script gives her a voice-over narration which Bennett delivers with all the emotional intensity of a woman ordering a blue-plate special at a cheap restaurant. Secret Beyond the Door is the sort of bad movie one regrets more than usual because the talent involved could easily have created something great instead of this dreary pseudo-psychological thriller in which Lang comes off as an inferior imitator of Hitchcock — who got virtually his whole style from Lang in the first place!