HOUSE BY THE RIVER (1950).
These two Fritz Lang films were on a double bill I'd hoped to see at the Noir City Film Festival, and since I couldn't go I did the next best thing and watched the movies at home!
SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR is a strange movie which doesn't entirely work, yet I nonetheless liked it quite well. It seems to fall in line with other "spooky old house" noir titles of its era like SHADOW OF A WOMAN (1946), CRY WOLF (1947), and THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947), all of which were imperfect and all of which I still very much enjoyed.
SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR was the last film in the collaboration between director Lang and actress Joan Bennett, which also included the classics MAN HUNT (1941), THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), and SCARLET STREET (1945). Based on a book by Rufus King, it tells the REBECCA-esque story of Celia (Bennett), who impulsively marries a near-stranger, architect Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), while on vacation in Mexico.
Just as in SHADOW OF A WOMAN (1946), Celia belatedly discovers that Mark was married before and has a son at home, not to mention a sister (Anne Revere) and a rather strange live-in secretary (Barbara O'Neil). Mark himself proves to be an odd duck, running emotionally hot and cold and given to "collecting" rooms where macabre incidents took place. Celia decides to leave Mark more than once but just can't bring herself to give up on their marriage. But will staying be the death of her?
The movie would be worth seeing if only to look at Joan Bennett, gloriously filmed in black and white by Stanley Cortez (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), with gowns by Travis Banton. There's certainly no doubt that Bennett's choice to remain a brunette after starring in TRADE WINDS (1938) was the correct decision!
Beyond her appearance, I found Bennett's performance as the likeable, committed woman quite engaging. Though she's initially a bit immature, casting off boyfriends and acting hastily in marrying Mark, she resolves to see their marriage through "for better or for worse." She deals with the several "surprises" she finds at his home with grace, particularly when dealing with Mark's son David, who formally insists on calling his new stepmother "Mrs. Lamphere."
Redgrave's character is a bit of a mess in that he spends so much of the film in "disturbed" mode that it's a bit difficult to understand Bennett's initial attraction for him. He spends an inordinate amount of time being an ill-mannered jerk. Eventually some of Mark's background is filled in, but he's the weakest link in the story. It would have worked better if he'd exhibited more of a dashing romantic side and a bit less of a potentially psychotic side.
Anne Revere is quite likeable in this film as Mark's briskly capable sister. This film was released shortly before another film with a Revere performance I admired, DEEP WATERS (1948).
Barbara O'Neil plays the secretary who was disfigured when saving David's life. Or was she? O'Neil's character is also not particularly well sketched; the troubled characters were the most problematic aspect of this film.
Natalie Schafer, also seen in the excellent REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947) last weekend, provides some needed humor as Celia's friend. Paul Cavanagh plays Celia's brother, James Seay is the straight-arrow attorney Celia dumps in favor of Mark, and Anabel Shaw (GUN CRAZY) is a party guest.
This 99-minute film was scored by Miklos Rozsa. It has striking production design (by Max Parker) and set decoration (by John Austin and Russell Gausman) -- I found the long hallway in Mark's home especially interesting -- not to mention a Dali-esque credits sequence.
The Dali connection calls to mind Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945), another film with a psychologically disturbed hero. These are yet two more examples of Hollywood's mid-'40s fascinating with psychological themes.
I watched a recording of UCLA's restoration of the film shown some time ago on Turner Classic Movies. TCM has posted a detailed article on SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR by Moira Finnie of The Skeins which is an excellent read, providing both analysis of the film and details on production.
SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR was released on DVD last year by Olive Films. The DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix. It's also had a release on VHS.