Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Secret Beyond the Door (1947)

SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR was the second film on this evening's "do it yourself" Gothic noir double bill, following 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.

7 Comments:

Blogger dfordoom said...

One of my favourite Lang films.

12:16 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

It appears there is a real, if minute market, for all the Lang films that no one like or saw at the time of their original release.

Agee's line about a woman's picture made by a misogynist is, if not entirely accurate, on the right track.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Lasso The Movies said...

Great review Laura on a film I would really like to see. Fritz Lang is one of those directors that always entertains even if there are faults in the film. His Hitchcockian stlye is quite underrated, and his films never seem to be disappointments.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I would like to see this one again. I recall reading in Miklos Rozsa's autobiography "A Double Life" that his music for, I think, the dream sequences was recorded in traditional fashion, but when put it the film the music was played backwards to give it a more off-setting touch. I'm intrigued by that and would like to hear how this sounds.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Great to hear from so many fans of Lang and/or this film.

That's a funny Agee line -- but actually, couldn't it apply to all films in this subgenre? There are so many films about someone who marries a man while on vacation, then goes with him to his home environment where she's not treated nearly as nicely as when she and the man first met...

That's very interesting info, Kevin. My husband is very into film music so I'll pass that on to him. Maybe I should be getting him Rozsa's book!

Best wishes,
Laura

4:01 PM  
OpenID livius1 said...

Another of Lang's flawed but fascinating works. I can't fault his direction in this one and it just about papers over the all the implausibilities and logic-defying aspects of the screenplay.
Bearing in mind that nobody involved in the movie seems to have been especially pleased with it, I think it turned out pretty well. Redgrave, who was a fine actor in most everything else, is probably the real weak link in this one. Bennett's strong performance just about makes up for that though.


Colin

2:04 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Agreed about Bennett and Redgrave but not the conclusion. No one makes up for Redgrave's weakness. Ergo, the unsatisfying film.

9:17 PM  

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