Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Secret Beyond the Door (1948)

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”Secret Beyond the Door” would have been the result if Val Lewton had decided to produce a mix of ”Rebecca” and “Spellbound”.

Okay, this is not a Val Lewton film, but a film directed and produced by Fritz Lang. That does not change that this is a film with some serious referencing issues. I can almost imagine Lang watching “Rebecca” and thinking: “So ein muss ich auch machen”. A woman coming to a strange house full of strange people and secrets that all conspire against her. It would then be really cool to hang it all up on a Freudian plot like “Spellbound”. Very hot at the time and a perfect device for making seemingly normal people do crazy and frightening things. But the production should be really dark, something like “Cat People” or “I Walked With a Zombie” to really get people out on the edge of the seat. Yeah, that would be so cool.

Fortunately for Lang “Secret Beyond the Door” turned out very good. It works, at least in the sense of creating a frightening and suspenseful ambience. There is far between older suspense movies that really work for me, I am just a jaded 21st movie fan who is used to think that effective suspense requires the boom of an approaching T-Rex or the possibility of a strange girl suddenly appearing in an elevator. But “Secret…” really found me on the edge of the proverbial seat. For scenes like Celia (Joan Bennett) discovering the dark secrets of the Lamphere mansion I can forgive Lang a lot. To discover the scene of your own death on a thundering, dark night is quite a mouthful for Celia and that feeling is transmitted directly and undiluted to us. Lang was always a talented expressionist moviemaker, but rarely as effective as here. I am sure he had been watching some of Jacques Tourneur’s work as well.

If you want to do a remake, you better try to make it better than the original or not at all.

I suppose there was an entire theme going on in the 40’ies with women coming to a new place only to find that they are very much alone in a strange and terrifying place. It was just come il faux. A difference here is that Celia is a much tougher girl than her predecessors. Joan Bennett is making her a far more mature woman than Joan Bennett was in “Rebecca” and more resolute than Ingrid Bergman’s Paula in “Gaslight”. In some ways she reminds me of Betsy in “I Walked With a Zombie”, not least because of her narration.

Celia is a highly eligible heiress vacationing in Mexico when she meets Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). He is apparently a successful architect and due to some magical chemistry between them they fall in love and get married in a rush. She knows very little of him and we all know what that means: There are skeletons in the closet. He soon start to act weirdly as some events seems to be triggering a different and colder persona. He is like a pendulum swinging between the loving and caring husband and the cold and hostile stranger (who said Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?) and Celia is responding by doubting if this marriage thing is really such a good idea.

The Lamphere mansion is Lang’s Manderley. It is gloomy and stuffed with odd characters. There is Marks dominating sister Caroline (Anne Revere) and Mark’s secretary Miss Robey (Barbara O'Neil), a character who has not a little in common with Mrs. Danvers. And then there is Mark’s son David. Whoops, I guess he forgot to mention that to Celia before they tied the knot. Mark also had a previous wife who died and whose death he is still blaming himself for. Does that sound familiar?

Under a very thin surface everybody seems at odds with each other in the house. David is a really weird boy who walks around with an accusing finger pointed toward Mark (He killed my mother!) Robey is like a ghost secretly in love with Mark and clinging on to her position using guilt as a weapon (She saved David as a child) and Caroline is bossing everybody around. Not the most comfortable place in the world.

All this takes a serious turn for the worse during a house warming party where Mark is encouraged to tour the guests through a series of reconstructed famous rooms, Marks hobby. Mark happily obliges and tells how each room was the scene of a famous murder. It is gruesome, macabre and not a little disturbing. What the hell is going on here? Celia is seriously shaken and frankly I found it a bit hard to believe that Mark and his guests would find such a series of rooms appropriate. Mark is clearly not normal in the head and what is in that mysterious seventh room that Mark insists on keeping locked up?

The following part is the best segment of the movie, but also a part I should not reveal too much from. Suffice to say that Celia HAVE to find out what is in the room and is not too happy with what she finds there.

As I already mentioned the entire film hangs on Freudian psychoanalysis. Mark has some repressed trauma from his childhood relating to his mother (of course) and that makes him behave in a psychotic manner, in this case giving him an urge to kill. He thinks he already did kill and the guilt just compounds the psychosis. Now, since this is a Freudian story Mark, like Anthony Edwardes in “Spellbound” just needs to be confronted with the events in his childhood and he will essentially snap out of his mental illness.

Hollywood loved Freud. Freudian psychoanalysis was a way to disarm an insane murderer and produce a happy ending without too much complication. A silver bullet so to speak. It is also a pile of horse shit psychobabble that trivializes something which is immensely more complicated in reality.

So, where does “Secret Beyond the Door” land? Yes, it is a total rip off, yes we have seen most of it before, yes, the Freudian psychobabble makes me gag, but damn, this is an effective film! It works, goddammit, and for that I can forgive Herr Lang a lot. Okay, this is not “M”, but I did for my part enjoy this movie.


  1. We'll disagree on this one in part. I agree that the Freudian crap is laughable and that it's a complete rehash of other, better films. I don't find it effective at all. Just silly.

    1. Ah, well, the ending did no good for me, but I am getting used to those silly resolutions. I am mostly focussing on the middle part and for me that worked very well.

  2. I haven't seen this one yet. I need to try it out. Somehow I doubt that it will get me to forgive the List makers for leaving Lang's Scarlet Street and/or The Woman in the Window off the list in favor of this.

    1. I never saw those so I can not say if the list botched it up. In the case of Secret beyond the Door, they definitely went for the style and technical execution, which is top mark.

  3. I am laughing at how similar our reviews are, right down to referencing Rebecca and Spellbound right off the back. Fabulous!

    I love your description as the Freudian psychobabble as a "silver bullet," because yes, exactly! That's precisely what Hollywood thought of Freud, that somehow simply being confronted with your buried trauma was enough to magically erase all mental illness and issues. It's so so SO silly.

    Yet very stylish. Nothing if not stylish.

    Nice review!!!

    1. Thank you very much!
      To some extent I suppose this is a no-brainer. The rip-off screams to heaven and the freudian resolution is just immensely stupid. What remain is the style and the suspense. To me it works. That is not the case for everybody.
      So, which is more important? I do not know and that is why I am on the fence with this movie.