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When Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door (1948), starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave, is seen on TCM in a beautiful, newly restored 35mm print from the UCLA Film and Archive, the film's chilling effects and expressionistic style are undeniable. It deserves rediscovery, despite a production history that rivals the convoluted plot of this film, which was created by a cast and crew near the height of their powers. If an aggregation of talent were enough to ensure success on a commercial or artistic level, this visually dazzling movie should have been a blockbuster. As it is, Secret Beyond the Door remains a puzzling but compulsively watchable picture. Exquisitely composed, occasionally almost surrealistic and sometimes overly arty, this study of love and death could only come from Lang, who made this movie at Universal under the aegis of Diana Productions, the independent corporation that Lang, Bennett and her husband, producer Walter Wanger, had formed to foster future projects for the trio. After a successful string of films featuring Bennett in such noir classics as The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), Secret Beyond the Door, a critical and box office disaster at the time of release, would prove to be their last partnership.
The story begins with the otherworldly image of a misty pond, as the camera follows circling ripples across the surface of the water to a paper sailboat. Strange forms are almost glimpsed beneath the surface. In Joan Bennett's distinctively low, resonant voice her character murmurs off-screen, "I remember. Long ago I read a book that told the meaning of dreams. It said that if a girl dreams of a boat or a ship she will reach a safe harbor, but if she dreams of daffodils she is in great danger. [Slow pan reveals twisted daffodils underwater]. But this is no time for me to think of danger. This is my wedding day."
That sequence, enhanced by animation done expressly for Secret Beyond the Door by the Disney company, sets the languid, optically compelling keynote for this moody film's strengths and weaknesses. This striking movie draws us in with tantalizing motives, possibilities and hints of logical explanations for linear events. Enlightenment seems to lie just beyond the view of the movie audience as we perceive things in the past and present through the often perplexed mind of Joan Bennett's character. The fluid, caressing camera of cinematographer Stanley Cortez then dissolves to the baroque interior of an ancient Mexican church bathed in long shadows, where the voyage of discovery for Bennett's aimless society heiress, Celia Barrett, and the mysterious architect she marries, Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), begins in earnest.
"I married a stranger."
That sinking realization, voiced by Bennett's bride just after she glides up the aisle toward her destiny, had become a recurrent theme that ran through many films in the 1940s, several of which focused on a woman in jeopardy. The woman in question is often a rather passive, naive figure, overwhelmed by the male's unfathomable behavior and mystifying personality, as well as the mysterious houses they lived in, which reflected the dim corners of their residents' psyche. Screen stories told in The Man I Married (1940), Rebecca (1940), Jane Eyre (1943), Gaslight (1944), My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), Undercurrent (1946), and Dragonwyck (1946) shared deep, tangled roots in ancient fairy tales with Bluebeard figures, 19th century gothic romances, and the popularization of Freudian notions among the general population. These movies also sprang from contemporary underlying anxieties that arose as millions of men and women found their lives in upheaval during and after the Second World War. When gender, work and family roles were in transition and many hasty wartime marriages came undone, returning spouses might be seen as changed by their experiences, and the ground under society's feet seemed less firm. Movies mirrored that disquiet--as well as telling stories that appealed to the greater number of women in movie audiences.
Secret Beyond the Door was migr Fritz Lang's unique contribution to this melodramatic cycle that reached its peak in Hollywood in that tumultuous decade. Working in a genre that might be dismissed as a "weepie" or a "woman's picture" by some of Lang's contemporaries, this movie was adapted from mystery writer Rufus King's magazine story by the director and Silvia Richards, a journeyman radio writer who had gained recognition for the script for Joan Crawford's psychologically insightful Possessed (1947). Not surprisingly for a director who blended psychology credibly into many of his best films, such as M (1931) and Ministry of Fear (1944), the mental state of his stressed characters often took center stage. Richards, whose emphasis on narration may have reflected her radio-writing roots, may have been too intimidated by her distinguished mentor's determination to craft an intellectually challenging movie that was also an unusual and sinister romance--a kind of "boy meets girl" story, Lang-style.
Fritz Lang's longtime secretary, Hilda Rolfe, once wrote that her impression of what she called "the confusing and rambling script" for this film was the result of her boss ignoring "his old producer Erich Pommer's advice against mixing business with pleasure vis--vis the opposite sex: Pommer had warned [Lang] never to have an affair with an actress he was working with, and Lang would quip roguishly, 'I never did--never during a picture.' This time (not the first) his involvement was with a writer, during, before, and after the picture. Richards, a tall, windswept, handsome blond woman, distinctly American and bright, was nevertheless in awe of Lang. She more or less gave in to story points that fit Lang's visual perception, forsaking motivation for mood. It was not" Rolfe said, "a good creative mix..."
Under Lang's guidance the movie became closer to a nightmarish film noir, animated by several touches of Hitchcock, and with echoes of the dark and fantastic European films of his earlier career. It also took audiences to exotic locations in Mexico and into the chambers of the heart, mind, and bizarre mansion belonging to the sensitive, erratic man that Joan Bennett marries in this film.
The first meeting of this couple, which seems almost pre-destined, occurs when Bennett feels Redgrave's star from across a crowded plaza in Mexico as two men fight with knives over a senorita. Celia is transfixed by the violent scene and aroused by this stranger who is watching her, just as she enviously thinks how proud the young woman must be to have men fight to the death for her. Shortly after this first wordless encounter, the composed Mark Lamphere introduces himself and calmly tells this "modern sleeping beauty" that "There's something in your face that I saw once before in South Dakota. Wheat country. Cyclone weather. Just before the cyclone, the air has a stillness. A flat, gold, shimmering stillness. You have it in your face--the same hush before the storm." While these lines may seem to be a bit awkward for a man trying to pitch woo, when delivered by Michael Redgrave, the actor makes them sound like earth-shattering insights.
Redgrave, whose remarkable performance as the unhinged ventriloquist in Dead of Night (1945) had helped to convince each of Diana Productions' partners that his casting would be crucial to making Secret Beyond the Door a success, may have been one of the few actors who could make such cryptic dialogue sound meaningful. His child-like, then youthful face, diffident, poetic manner and ability to convey the inner turmoil of a man at odds with himself helped to make the enigmatic behavior of his ill-defined character engrossing.
Instead of slowly backing away from this new acquaintance's odd way of speaking and his laser-like approach to her, the smitten Celia tumbles under his spell. Aware for the first time that time is passing after the recent death of her older brother, this no longer quite-so-young woman has tired of her aimless life as a social butterfly. She sheds her inhibitions as well as her talkative friend and traveling companion, played deftly by Natalie Schafer in her classic ditzy style. The intriguing blend of bemused, natural warmth and chilling poise that Joan Bennett could express with the flicker of a smile makes this transition into a woman in love credible. Bennett, who is lovingly photographed by Cortez in this film, seems to bloom throughout the movie. Initially, the viewer may note that this character seems to constantly check her beautiful reflection in mirrors the way that a hypochondriac repeatedly takes his own temperature. Falling deeper into love with her husband even as her fear mounts, the "sleeping beauty" comes fully alive at last, when she becomes ultimately aware that she has discovered a love so strong she would rather die than give it up.
While seemingly happy on their honeymoon as they idle away their time in an erotic haze at a lush hacienda, Celia soon experiences the first of many revelatory shocks when a light-hearted Mark casually tells her that "no woman can think," nor should they try, since they don't need to. "Thinking is a prerogative of men" and, since "women are closer to nature" they have no need to ponder life. This seemingly frivolous provocative remark irks the happy bride, but evidence of her new spouse's deep-rooted strangeness mounts up even more steadily.
Mark abruptly leaves her alone on the honeymoon, claiming telegraphed business concerns in America related to his precariously financed architectural magazine. That this occurred after she has playfully locked her husband out of their bedroom at the hacienda only to tease him becomes a source of guilt for her after she realizes its significance. The newly married pair begin an emotional pattern from then on of attraction and separation that is often incomprehensible to the bride, even though she feels herself increasingly drawn to her elusive, possibly psychotic husband.
The signs of his possible instability become more evident once Celia returns alone to Mark Lamphere's family home, Blades Creek in Levender Falls, NY, only to learn that he is not present to greet her. Instead, Mark's highly capable and domineering sister, Carrie (Anne Revere, in her likable, no-nonsense mode), a woman whose existence was unknown to her, meets her train. Soon Celia learns that she is her husband's second wife and that she has a stepson named David (Mark Dennis) as well. The boy is a strange, precociously sophisticated adolescent who seems to be the focus of a tug of war between Carrie and Mark's creepy secretary, Miss Robey. This character is played by Barbara O'Neil, a gifted actress who delivers her lines in a monotone, in part because the dictatorial Lang reportedly had her frozen with fear. The solemn Robey, a kind of eccentric cousin to Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, wears a scarf draped across the side of her face, makes cryptic pronouncements about David's upbringing and appears to be a family fixture, in part because she once saved the boy from an unexplained fire in the mansion.
That imposing family home, which Celia's jealous attorney/suitor notes is "mortgaged to the hilt," is filled with many rooms and secrets that take hold of Celia's racing imagination, as her love, curiosity and fears about her spouse mount up. Why does Mark shrink away from her embrace when he spies a sprig of lilac on her lapel? Why hadn't he told her of the existence of his first wife, Eleanor? Why did she die of some mysterious malady when Mark had tenderly cared for her? Why didn't he explain that he had a son? Had Mark married her for her money, as Celia's friends seemed to believe? How does the revelation of Mark's twisted "hobby" of collecting rooms "connected to felicitous events" affect Celia? Stating that he believes that "under certain conditions, rooms can influence or even determine the actions of those who live in them," the eccentric architect reveals to some garden party guests that each chamber is furnished with the contents of rooms where past murders of women took place. He guides the awestruck visitors to one room that holds the luxurious cushions, chairs and draperies from the bedroom of the Duc de Guise, where he had slaughtered his Huguenot wife on the 24th of August 1572, just before the St Bartholomew's Day massacre in France. Another is a bleak, brick cellar where a rough-hewn wooden chair sits with ropes draped around it, as though the body of a woman who had been restrained there--a murderer's mother--had only recently been removed. As Mark carefully notes, the waterline around the room near the ceiling shows how high the water got during a flood, when the victim was purposely left to drown in the basement. These gruesome tableaux and the gristly stories that go with them elicit one amusing response from an intellectually smug college girl in the crowd. She blithely insists that it was "A pity for him that in [the murderer's] day they didn't know about psychoanalysis...if he'd been able to tell someone like a psychoanalyst what [was] troubling him, no murder would have been necessary."
The disturbed mental state of a man who would pursue such a gruesome diversion to this elaborate extent becomes even more disturbing for Celia once Mark reveals that one room, with the number 7 on the door, must never be opened. The morning after learning of her husband's bizarre hobby, Celia sees her husband through a window. Gently carrying a stray dog who had been hit by a car, she muses that he seems to be "the soul of kindness, tender and gentle. What goes on in this mind that he can change so suddenly? He keeps it locked, like the door to the secured room. I have to open them both--for his sake."
Stealthily borrowing his key to the locked room, Celia has a copy made, and sneaks down to the basement to find the room is actually an exact replica of her own bedroom--one that she surmises is meant to be her murder room and was also the bedroom of her predecessor, the deceased Eleanor. This revelation, punctuated by the emphatic dramatic score composed by Mikls Rzsa, sends Secret Beyond the Door into an abrupt tizzy, cutting to black for several seconds, as the director unexpectedly shifts to a surreal imaginary trial. This expressionistic scene takes place within Redgrave's troubled mind--and features a tortured Redgrave appearing as both witness and prosecutor trying to justify his murderous urges and his possible murder of Celia, which he contends may have been triggered because he had been dominated by women all his life--his mother, sister, secretary, first and second wife--all of whom prevented him from living his own life.
The rest of the movie becomes Fritz Lang's idea of a liebestraum: a dream of love in a fun house mirror, highlighted by exceptional visual beauty in black and white and almost no logical behavior. Celia's return to her murderous minded husband ultimately leads to Redgrave's liberation from his obsessions. This occurs in that magical Freudian moment when the scales fell from a character's eyes and the past that shaped him comes into sharp focus. Hollywood loved this bit of presto-chango psychological insight and indulged in several times, notably in Hitchcock's stylish if preposterous Spellbound (1945). Despite this ending which also strongly shows the influence of Rebecca, the love that Celia inexplicably feels for Mark becomes the vessel that helps to carry them away from the past toward a somewhat hopeful future, even though, as Mark admits, "I still have far to go." (Celia corrects him gently, admonishing him that "we have far to go.")
Years later, Lang would shrug off the experience of Secret Beyond the Door and dismiss it all as "a very unfortunate adventure." The director explained that "if one thing goes wrong with a project then everything goes wrong; and this one went wrong from the beginning. I don't know whose fault it all was; probably much of it was mine. The cameraman was very bad, Joan Bennett wanted to divorce her husband--lots of things like that went wrong. Our solution was too glib, too slick. It would be very nice if a mentally disturbed patient could talk with a psychiatrist for two hours and then be cured; but such things cannot be done so quickly."
Lang's admission that he may have been partly responsible for the problems on this picture seems to jibe with other's impressions. Much of the difficulty in making the film seems to have stemmed from Lang's obsessions and his attitude toward those he worked with on the project. Years later Joan Bennett would concede that "Fritz was terribly exacting and demanding and working with him was sometimes abrasive, but he commanded great respect, and I performed better under his direction than at any other time in my career. Almost always I did what I was told, and we developed a great working rapport." As a key partner in Diana Productions, (named after Bennett's daughter), keeping that affinity alive became exceedingly difficult for the actress as the film went over-budget and beyond its original shooting schedule.
Years later, Redgrave would publicly admit that "the film I made in Hollywood with Lang--and which, by the way, I have never seen--had a silly story, pseudo-psychological and pretentious, but as Lang had just made two very successful and exciting pictures out of stories which seemed to me equally preposterous, I accepted it. I wanted to work with Lang. I thought I could learn something from him. I certainly learnt one thing, even if I did not know it already: that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the creative germ of a picture is in its idea. With a good germinating idea and with the help of a good script, you have the best chance of making a good picture...if you have a germinating idea, an idea which not only catches the imagination of the public, but which fires the minds of the writer, the director, the actors and everyone working on the picture, you are half-way there. "
Redgrave also discovered other things during his hectic trip to Hollywood in 1947 to make this movie and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947). He explained that "I could tell you of working with Fritz Lang--one of the great names of the cinema, surely--who taught me what it is like to be caught up in the Hollywood machine, working in a studio where your personal telephone calls are liable to be tapped." Redgrave, who spent his life trying to juggle his storied career, his marriage to Rachel Kempson, a family life, and his bisexuality, which he publicly acknowledged in his later years, may have had reason to be a bit paranoid after working with Lang. He saw how tyrannical Lang could behave, and may have wondered at his cruelty after a playful honeymoon scene between Bennett and Redgrave was filmed six times, with the action ending each time in the English actor's landing on his head after tumbling from a hammock.
The director, who would chide his actors and crew for minor infractions, reducing some to tears, and others to sarcasm, left the English actor dumbfounded by the manner in which he could sometimes behave on the set. Joan Bennett's eldest daughter, Diana, who was a teenager at the time of this production, believed that the tense atmosphere may have brought the actor's insecurities to the surface. "Michael Redgrave was a mess," she recalled. "...I remember that he was nervous and uptight. Fritz was being very naughty. He was diabolical and cruel. Maybe he thought he was going to get a performance that way. He had absolute confidence in his way of doing things." In one instance, that confidence was a bit misplaced when trying to guide Joan Bennett in a scene in a moving car during which her inner thoughts were to be heard as narration.
Hilda Rolfe wrote that "Bennett's thoughts were to be read aloud by the scriptgirl (as they were then called). But for some reason, Lang insisted on reading the words himself. First there was a long silence as the camera studied Bennett's puzzled face. Then, Lang's voice: 'Vy did he did it?'"
"The silence resumed as Bennett strained to concentrate, Redgrave still stoic and unsmiling on the sidelines. Again, Lang's voice: 'Vy did he did it? Vy did he did it?' he said repeatedly, emphasizing the implicit thought each time. Unable to contain her laughter or sustain concentration any longer, Bennett threw her head forward and broke up. 'Fritz,' she screamed, 'Vy did he do it,' not 'Vy did he did it'!' Except for Lang and Redgrave, both of whom remained stonefaced, everyone on the set--the crew, the scriptgirl, the editor--all were chuckling with amusement. Lang's face turned red with embarrassment. The Perfectionist did not make mistakes! Nor could he understand the humor. 'You've ruined ze scene,' he shouted. 'Everybody blames me for spending too much money.' This may have been one of the few times during filming that Bennett had reason to laugh."
In retrospect, Bennett would write years later that under the stress of making Secret Beyond the Door, Lang's behavior on the film toward the actress and others sometimes revealed something petty and vicious in the gifted, insecure man. Placing Natalie Schafer next to an actual roaring fireplace on a day when the thermometer surged toward 100 degrees, the elegantly dressed character actress dismissed Lang's sarcastic apology for the heat during some 24 takes by replying proudly, "That's alright, Mr. Lang. I'm a masochist." Schafer also refused to endure his barking orders at her in silence. When he tried the same bullying technique that he used on Barbara O'Neil on Natalie Schafer, she whirled around and snapped, "Don't you shout at me!" The martinet in him was suddenly gone and he was apologizing profusely as he whispered, "You don't have to shout," just before breaking for lunch.
Another time during production the usually circumspect Joan Bennett remembered that Lang "wouldn't use doubles for Michael Redgrave and me for a [climactic] sequence in a burning house. We fled, terrified, through scorching flames, time and again, and it wasn't a fire for toasting marshmallows." During another sequence set during a nocturnal search by Bennett for the locked room in her husband's house, the leading lady was compelled to have lights painfully strapped to her arms to get the visual effect he wanted. According to Bennett's daughter, Diana, "Fritz didn't care if she bled."
More significantly for the future of Diana Productions, the real problems with Secret Beyond the Door had begun in pre-production and extended into post-production. Prior to filming Lang had pushed for Robert Krasker, the cinematographer who was responsible for much of the look of several now classic films, such as Brief Encounter (1945), Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), to be chosen to photograph this movie. Bennett and Wanger preferred Stanley Cortez, who photographed the actress and all the interiors in the film in an extraordinary manner, presaging the stunning visuals that Cortez would create for the brilliant The Night of the Hunter (1955). Secret Beyond the Door was almost entirely set-bound, which enhanced the sense of dreamlike unreality captured so well by Cortez, but Lang, nursing his resentment over Krasker, claimed he was too slow. To compensate, the cinematographer and his crew would prepare set-ups for the next day by working overnight.
The movie, which was received by a notably hostile sneak preview audience with epithets such as "it stinks" and "the worst," was also crippled by a quirky narration that Lang had imposed on the picture. He was obsessed with the ide fixe that the narration expressing the Bennett character's thoughts should be voiced by another actress to emphasize the schism between the interior thoughts and external action of Celia. Universal, which was reeling, along with the rest of the film industry from the postwar box office slump, eventually nixed this gimmicky idea. While misleading narration might be cleverly employed for brief portions of a Billy Wilder film such as Sunset Boulevard (1950), the "thought voice" that Lang had recorded with actress Colleen Collins speaking in Celia's words was believed to be simply confusing for an audience already being asked to follow a labyrinthian storyline. After this device was jettisoned, a voice-over by Joan Bennett was recorded. The film was also recut by order of the Universal brass, with Walter Wanger's acquiescence, since he was distracted by financial and other problems on non-Lang films that he was producing. Fritz Lang saw Bennett and Wanger's cooperation with Universal's changes to Secret Beyond the Door as "a betrayal," which precipitated the demise of Diana Productions.
When Secret Beyond the Door opened in January of 1948, influential critic James Agee dismissed it as "a worthless picture," others called it "a pretty silly yarn", "a woman's picture made by a misogynist," and an "elegant grand guignol nightmare." The censor boards in Ohio and in Boston threatened to snip whole scenes deemed too tawdry for audiences, but even that sort of publicity didn't help the movie, which the newly formed Universal-International wrote off as the biggest money loser of 1948.
Despite all the blood, sweat and tears that produced this "failure," Secret Beyond the Door remains a film of such undeniable power it may still enchant viewers, even if it is just for a moment in the movie's 99 minute running time. Joan Bennett once confessed that when she first heard that Fritz Lang was 20th Century Fox's choice to make The Return of Frank James (1940), she was a bit puzzled by the news. Asking mogul Darryl F. Zanuck why he would chose "a middle European to do an American Western, [he replied] 'Because he'll see things that we don't,'" and this may never have been truer than when making Secret Beyond the Door. Later, when Bennett confided some of her many problems with the mercurial director to Zanuck, he told her simply: "Let him have one good resounding flop and he'll be adorable."
Producer: Fritz Lang
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Silvia Richards (screenplay); Rufus King (story)
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Film Editing: Arthur Hilton
Cast: Joan Bennett (Celia Lamphere), Michael Redgrave (Mark Lamphere), Anne Revere (Caroline Lamphere), Barbara O'Neil (Miss Robey), Natalie Schafer (Edith Potter), Paul Cavanagh (Rick Barrett), Anabel Shaw (Intellectual Sub-Deb), Rosa Rey (Paquita), James Seay (Bob Dwight), Mark Dennis (David)
by Moira Finnie
The Bennett Playbill by Joan Bennett and Lois Kibbee, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970
The Bennetts: An Acting Family by Brian Kellow, University Press of Kentucky, 2004
Mask or Face: Reflections in an Actor's Mirror by Michael Redgrave, Theatre Arts Books, 1959
Fritz Lang: interviews by Fritz Lang, Barry Keith Grant, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2003
Fritz Lang by Lotte Eisner, Da Capo Press, 1986
Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan, St. Martin's Press, 1998
"The Perfectionist" by Hilda Rolfe, Film Comment, Nov 1992. Vol. 28, Issue 6