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Secret Beyond The Door (1947)
Director: Fritz Lang

review by Jonathan McCalmont

For reasons that perhaps have more to do with anti-Americanism than genuine aesthetics, Fritz Lang is a director best remembered for such pre-war cinematic triumphs as M (1931), Metropolis (1927), and Dr Mabuse The Gambler (1922). Although a prominent Austrian filmmaker, and one of the leading lights of German expressionist film, Lang's Jewish ancestry left him feeling distinctly uncomfortable about the rise of Nazism. When Hitler finally came to power in 1933, Lang divorced his wife and fled the country for America, where he took a job at MGM. Initially seen as little more than a series of genre pieces built around stars of the era, Lang's Hollywood films were later reclaimed by critics and positioned as part of the film noir period.

Far from simple pictures, films such as The Ministry Of Fear (1944), The Woman In The Window (1944), and Scarlet Street (1945), all display the technical prowess, visual flair and thematic intelligence of true cinematic classics. However, despite the brilliance of Lang's Hollywood films, many are hard to find on DVD. Indeed, Exposure Cinema's recent region-free release of Secret Beyond The Door is pretty much the only way for contemporary film fans to see the film outside of a festival or retrospective. In other words, if you like beautifully directed and exquisitely written film noir psychological thrillers then you are duty bound to seek out this DVD.

Secret Beyond The Door is a re-telling of Charles Perrault's fairy tale Bluebeard (1697). Bluebeard tells the story of a young woman who marries a rich and powerful man who is well known for his ugliness and savagery. When Bluebeard leaves his castle on business, he gives his new wife a set of keys and tells her to explore her new home except for one particular room. However, because Bluebeard wants his wife to know that he trusts her, he leaves her the key to the room along with all of the others.

With Bluebeard gone, the woman begins exploring the castle, but no matter how sumptuous the rooms she discovers might be, her attention returns again and again to the forbidden room. Eventually surrendering to her curiosity, the woman lets herself into the room and discovers the corpses of Bluebeard's former wives. Horrified, she drops the key on the floor where it is stained with blood. When the murderous husband returns home, he flies into a rage and attempts to murder his wife for breaking her vow, but the wife outwits the ogre and escapes to marry another man as musketeers dispatch her former husband.

Bluebeard is one of a number of folk tales (including the stories of Lohengrin, Cassandra, and Eve) stressing the fact that women are not only untrustworthy but also possessed by a destructive tendency to meddle. Indeed, had Eve not listened to the serpent then humanity might never have been exiled from the Garden of Eden and, had Bluebeard's wife obeyed him rather than her curiosity, the pair might have lived a long and happy life. Arguably less well known that some of Perrault's other stories (including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss In Boots, and Sleeping Beauty), today Bluebeard exists largely as a story to be plundered, reclaimed and retold by feminist authors. This is unsurprising given the fact that, beneath the obvious misogyny, the story contains a wealth of insight into the nature and structure of relationships. Lang's Secret Beyond The Door is very much a film that is part of this tradition in that it tells the story of a woman whose decision to open her husband's doors is nothing less than heroic.

Celia Barrett (Joan Bennett) is a serial monogamist. Intelligent, beautiful and utterly glamorous, she moves from fiancé to fiancé in a way that suggests an absolute refusal to settle for anything less than an equal. Businessmen bore her just as much as jazz musicians. After the collapse of her latest relationship, Celia and her sister travel to Mexico where they happen upon two men fighting to the death for the love of a beautiful woman. Entranced and aroused, Celia realises that this is what she wants from life: a man who will go to the very edge for her. Conveniently enough, such a man promptly appears in the shape of Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). Like Celia's other paramours, Lamphere is dashing, handsome, successful and intelligent but what draws Celia to him is the edge of mystery surrounding his personality, a mystery that emerges when he inexplicably disappears during the couple's honeymoon.

Her curiosity well and truly piqued, Celia is nonetheless unprepared for the sheer number of mysteries that assail her the second she steps through the door of Mark's American home. Indeed, within minutes of her arrival, Celia is informed that Mark has a son from a previous marriage, and that this previous marriage ended with the unexplained death of the first Mrs Lamphere. Even more bizarre is the fact that Mark seems to live his life flanked by a pair of strangely controlling women from whom he regularly escapes into a series of locked rooms.

Secret Beyond The Door uses Perrault's Bluebeard as an extended metaphorical treatment of the process through which one person gets to know another. The basic idea is that when we enter into a relationship with another person, we hand them the keys to our psychological castle and invite them to wander around. As time goes by, our partners open long closed doors and gradually learn all the quirks of our personality, quirks that we might very well not be aware of ourselves. According to this psychological metaphor, Bluebeard is presented as a man with a dark past and an edgy personality. By handing his wife the keys to his personality and inviting her to visit every room except the final one, he is making it clear that some aspects of his personality are not up for debate and, while he wants his wife to know that he trusts her, he also wants to know that she will never consciously force him to confront certain facts about himself.

While the plot of Secret Beyond The Door does involve an actual series of locked doors (behind which Mark has lovingly recreated a number of famous historical murder scenes), the door openings that actually drive the plot are the ones in Mark's head. Indeed, Celia's presence in the house upsets the status quo and her continued questioning of Mark, his female companions and his furiously resentful teenaged son; force Mark to confront certain facts about his past. The psychoanalytical nature of the plot is highlighted in a brilliant scene where Mark gives dinner guests a guided tour of his rooms. Mark presents the rooms as things of beauty where people were liberated from their troubles but, as a psychologist in the audience points out, the preservation of murder sites also suggests not only a morbid fascinating with death but a foolish belief that murder can somehow be a good thing. Every time the psychologist pipes up, Redgrave has Mark twitch and contort his facial expression into a series of hideous masks. Clearly, every single one of the psychologist's remarks has hit home and the damage on Mark's sense of self is considerable. Evidently, Mark Lamphere's psyche is a battered old house; and the more doors you kick open, the more unstable the house becomes. By forcing Mark to confront his past and demanding explanations, Celia is effectively pushing Mark further and further into madness.

Unfortunately, the further Celia digs into Mark's character, the less clear Silvia Richards' screenplay becomes. Playing to the expectations of the psychological thriller genre, Secret Beyond The Door leaps through a number of twists and turns which keep the tension levels high at the expense of psychological clarity. Indeed, having now watched the ending of the film three times, I am still unclear as to why Mark built the rooms in the first place and why he may or may not have attempted to murder Celia. There is a particularly puzzling moment when Mark's homicidal urges are defused by crying that his mother was not responsible for some event in Mark's past. Given the film's regrettable tendency to hand wave details of Mark's backstory, this appeal to the figure of the mother comes across as nothing more than pseudo-psychoanalytical posturing that assumes that all problems are ultimately down to mother.

Secret Beyond The Door may ultimately fail to deliver very much psychological insight into the character of Mark but its treatment of Celia is altogether more engaging. Lang's vision of Bluebeard sits somewhere between Perrault's misogyny and contemporary feminist retellings, as it presents Celia as a liberated woman who refuses to sit quietly while the man she loves suffers in torment. Indeed, rather than presenting Celia's inquisitive nature as idle meddling, the film suggests that Celia sees it as her duty to force Mark to confront certain issues. This idea that even financially-dependent women ought to have access to their husband's private lives is reminiscent of the proto-feminism displayed in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), in which the titular character asserts her individuality and autonomy within the context of a patriarchal society.

There are strong parallels between Celia's uncovering of Mark's dark past and Jane's decision to investigate Mr Rochester's secretive behaviour and discover the mad woman in his attic. While there is something faintly old-fashioned about a film that explores the role of a wife and partner and their rights with regards to the mental health of their significant other, I found Secret Beyond The Door's analysis of relationship dynamics to be both mesmerising and surprising. With the exception of Cary Fukunaga's exemplary adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011), I cannot think of another film that addresses this aspect of modern life: what are the rights and responsibilities of the individual when their partner is subject to an unhealthy psychological fixation? The common wisdom is that people should not try to 'fix' their significant others, but is this truly a hard and fast rule?

Aside from being atmospherically shot and filled with trippy visuals including misty moors (another possibly Jane Eyre reference) and disembodied heads, Secret Beyond The Door also features a beautifully written voiceover in which Celia explains how she feels about the events of her life. Voiceovers tend to be poorly received in contemporary film as they are (quite correctly) taken to be a step away from cinematic exposition and towards the narrative principles governing the novel. Indeed, while novels have always been about expressing the interiority of character, film is all about showing and not telling. Without her voiceover, Celia would doubtless come across as a far more ambiguous figure and so it is interesting to ponder the question of whether Lang's film might not be improved by having the voiceover removed.

Watching Secret Beyond The Door and noticing Lang's tendency to simply pause the action and linger on his actor's faces while their voiceovers are delivered, I was struck by how little has changed in the way that directors communicate interiority. Indeed, while directors of Lang's generation paused so that voiceovers can be delivered, contemporary directors simply pause and allow audiences to fill in their own voiceovers. Doubtless many art house films could be transformed by using these little pauses and gazings into the middle distance to deliver short voiceovers in which characters speak directly to the audience. Clearly the basic grammar of cinema has not evolved that much since the days of Lang, it is just that nowadays art house directors tend to outsource exposition to audience speculation.

Though disappointingly flawed in some of its characterisation, Secret Beyond The Door remains a great psychological thriller and a wonderful component of the film noir canon. Steeped in nuance and deeply engaged in matters of gender politics, Fritz Lang's retelling of Bluebeard is long overdue a proper DVD release and Exposure Cinema should be celebrated for their decision to secure the rights and take the plunge. According to Amazon, this DVD comes with a booklet including fresh critical essays on the film. Regrettably, my review copy did not contain any extras and I have not seen the booklet and so I cannot comment upon themů but I am sure they are worth a look.

Secret Beyond The Door

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