BFI Gothic Season – The Secret Beyond The Door (1948)
And so the BFI’s exhaustive five month Gothic season finally comes to an end, not with a bang but with a spectral whisper. Whilst I regret not getting through to two specific set-pieces of the season – The Innocents and The Haunting – I am nevertheless a little more relived at the results of my recent efforts, I’ve made a concerted effort for January and managed to cover two bona-fide film classics which puts me in good standing for this year’s historical coverage and its only February. When I saw the potential synergy (horrible word, my apologies for its deployment) in connecting two film seasons I couldn’t resist booking a ticket to The Secret Beyond The Door, a film screening on the very last day of the BFI’s programme which leads me perfectly into my aforementioned Fritz Lang examination, a new strand of investigation that we should be following alongside my long lurking Universal Monsters season. To be honest it’s a film I’ve been yearning to see again anyway, as previously mentioned a collaboration between Joan Bennett and Lang forms the mischievous core of Scarlett Street which is one of my all-time favourite films, one day we’ll get around to why but another brooding tale of insanity driven homicide seems like an ideal place to blood you into the nefarious depths of arguably Germany’s greatest filmmaker. The Secret Beyond The Door is an overtly psychologically themed noir which can be parsed to Hitchcock’s Superstition and Tourneur’s Cat People, projects marinated in the immediate post-war craze for psychoanalysis, then a fairly new phenomenon for America which Hollywood naturally leaped upon for product ideas just as it does with any other cultural node – Doctor I think I’m suffering from déjà vu…..
Narrated in a woozy, dream dazed monotone our heroine is Celia (Joan Bennett), an elegant society gal from good stock whom has resisted the approaches of numerous suitors within New York’s nouveau riche society. After her brother dies she is the sole executor and inheritor of her families wealthy estate, so in a period of mournful reflection she retires to Mexico to assess her life and forge a plan for the way forward. Fate intervenes as it often does in the form of Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), wonderfully introduced in the backdrop of a passionate knife fight between two local street kids wrestling over the heart of a local seductress, complete with a quivering hurled dagger narrowly missing Celia’s midsection and kicking her out of her amour fuelled reverie. A whirlwind romance is soon underway, with Lamphere a successful architect and publisher revealing that he on the cusp of selling his practice to some major financiers which should resolve his fiscal uncertainties. Although he is distant and occasionally withdrawn Ceila is soon hopelessly in love, so after the couple are married and separately return to the States she is rather surprised to learn that not only is she not Michael’s first jaunt down the aisle but that he also has a son, his previous wife apparently expiring under rather suspicious circumstances. The families expansive family home is a shelter of psychosis, with different rooms and chambers shielded from the intrusion of visitors or new interlopers, harbouring secrets and desires smothered in the depths of the id. Celia also has to content with the affections of Michael’s sister Caroline (Anne Reverie) and the rather more mysterious secretary of the family practice Edith (Natalie Schafer), her face half draped with a scarf which suggests a horrible disfigurement from years gone by…..
As a noir junkie I was predisposed to enjoy The Secret Beyond The Door, but like the similarly celebrated Mildred Pierce it’s something of a genre hybrid, a melodrama or what were perhaps sexistly called then as ‘woman’s pictures’ lurking within the murky outer carapace of noir. I’ve seen it before of course but as always these old pictures take on a new sheen on the big screen, this was a reasonably clear and charcoal smeared print which enabled Lang’s crustose use of architecture and space to breathe a groggy life into the tale. It’s carefully carved in space and shadow to suggest the external manifestations of the characters internal states, right down to the costume design and use of props, the family sanctuary wreathed in shadow, suggesting a locus numb of affection or emotion. I’ve always liked Joan Bennett as a quietly elegant dame with just a streak of danger, so for me the main failing of the film is Redgrave’s stilted antagonist. I keep making this point but it bears repeating, the theatrical, stage trained style of very deliberately intoning dialogue whilst gazing into the distance, of pregnantly emphasising every cadence of speech and emotional turns in such a frantic and obvious style, it really does these films no favours and given that not all actors of the period resorted to such grandstanding (Bogart, Fonda and Stanwyck leap to mind) I wonder why directors let them get away with it, as the camera is in there with the action, its intimate with the audience so they don’t have to play to the gods. To be fair his state suggest a puppet being manipulated by wounds inflicted deep in his anima and scorched in his animus, so maybe I just don’t know what the hell I’m talking about as I’m no Stanislavski….
Faults aside it has a faintly ambitious structural shift in the final act which to my mind is unusual for the time, throughout the film we’ve seen the film through Celia’s eyes and met this gloomy family through her perspective, an identification model which is exaggerated and enhanced through the deployment of Bennet’s at times somnambulist cadenced voice-over. So when the emphasis shifts due to plot events to another character it’s quite disconcerting, it immediately punches up the tension as the film is moving up through the gears at this point as it careers towards its final conflagration, a hall-mark of great noir as disorientation and discombobulation are the unsteady psychic grounds on which the best films of the genre are based. Only in a film of the 1940’s would a husbands hobby of re-enacting the scenes of famous society murders within the newly developed wings of his mansion, down to every last gory detail including murder weapons, discarded clothing and blood stains be seen as a harmless eccentric flourish, as clearly Mark is an absolute grade-A mentalist due to some unspecified trauma in his past. The symbolism of material and mind is clear, only when the door is unlocked can these mental chains be unshackled and unbound, a restoration of the social status quo which is daintily rehearsed in the films final scene. In terms of Lang this is an interesting insertion point as it stands at roughly half way through his career, his fascination with the intellect and isolated, the locale and light informing the European and American strands of his oeuvre, but next I think we need to get back to the home country and see where the Teutonic tyrant first began to shine……