Secret Beyond the Door… (DVD Sleeve Notes)

SecretBeyondDoorSquare“I married a stranger.”

With these words, a not uncommon sentiment in 1948 after years of hasty wartime marriages, a young woman’s fate is sealed. But what is her fate?

In Fritz Lang’s chilling psychological melodrama Secret Beyond the Door…, presented here from a newly restored 35mm print, Celia Barrett (Joan Bennett) tires of her life as a social butterfly and decides to marry architect (Michael Redgrave), whom she has just met in Mexico. Upon returning to New York, Celia discovers that her new husband has a son from a previous marriage, and that his first wife may have died in mysterious circumstances. Or did she? As Celia delves deeper into the darkest recesses of her new home, and her husband’s mind, buried secrets are slowly revealed, both to the protagonist and the audience, keeping us guessing – and full of dread and fear – until the final scene.

Born in Austria in 1890, Fritz Lang had already made two bona fide masterpieces, Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), by the time he fled Germany in 1934, to escape the Nazis. Lang found a warm welcome in Hollywood, where his first English language feature was the powerful drama Fury, in which Spencer Tracy is wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Crime, injustice, subterfuge and conspiracy figured prominently in his wartime films, including Ministry of Fear and The Woman in the Window (both 1944), yet Secret Beyond the Door… was more aligned with an intriguing post-war subgenre, rooted in the Bluebeard myth and popularized notions of Freudian psychology, in which women rush into marriages with men they hardly know, only to unlock terrible secrets buried in their husband’s homes, or their psyches, or both.

The story was adapted from Rufus King’s mystery magazine tale “Museum Piece No.13” by Lang and prolific radio writer Silvia Richards, who was on familiar territory, having scripted Joan Crawford’s psychological thriller Possessed (1947). Richards’ tendency towards prosaic exposition was countered by Lang’s more expressionistic inclinations, and the completed script was soon being prepared as the latest collaboration between Lang, actress Joan Bennett and her husband Walter Wang, following The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), under the aegis of Diana Productions. With Bennett already cast in the lead role, Lang chose British actor Michael Redgrave, who had recently given an indelible performance as the unhinged ventriloquist in Dead of Night (1945), to play her psychologically damaged husband, Mark Lamphere. “[It] had a silly story, pseudo-psychological and pretentious,” he wrote later, “but as Lang had just made two very successful and exciting pictures out of stories which seemed to me equally preposterious, I accepted it.”

Lang was equally dismissive of the finished film, describing it as “a very unfortune adventure,” the ending of which was “too glib, too slick.” The cameraman was very bad,” he added, referring to Stanley Cortez, chosen by Bennett and Wanger over Lang’s own choice, Robert Krasker. In addition, “Joan Bennett wanted to divorce her husband – lots of things like that went wrong.” The critical assessment was even more hostile, variously dismissed as “a worthless picture,” “a pretty silly yarn” and “a woman’s picture made by a misogynist,” no doubt contributing to the film’s dismal box office performance. (It was Universal-International’s biggest flop of 1948.)

But while Secret Beyond the Door… was undoubtedly a critical and commercial failure, there is much to admire in the picture today, not least the dreamlike reality of Cortez’s camera work (particularly noticeable in the restored version presented here) and Lang’s expressionistic flourishes – most notably the surreal sequence in which Lamphere imagines himself on trial before a courtroom of faceless jurors, and the opening sequence, a rare instance of Disney’s animation studio providing material for a rival studio’s film. Perhaps the film is best seen as an extended Twilight Zone episode (a comparison enhanced by both the title and the title treatment, with its stylized, distended illustration of a door), which more than compensates for its lack of genuine psychological insight with striking visuals, engaging performances – and, at its heart, a surprisingly tender love story.

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