Sunday, October 19, 2014

Secret Beyond The Door... (1948)

Fritz Lang was one of the big directors of the German Expressionist movement, which would prove to be a major influence on filmmaking in general, and film noir in particular. Movies such as 'Metropolis' (1927) and 'M' (1931) set new standards, especially in visual aesthetics. So it's no surprise that when he left Germany and moved to the USA in the mid '30s, he would end up making several films noirs and noir-ish thrillers including 'Ministry Of Fear' (1944) and 'The Big Heat' (1953).

In 1941, sultry Joan Bennett starred in his espionage thriller 'Man Hunt', the first of 4 collaborations. After their 2nd movie together, 1944's 'The Woman In The Window', they formed a production company, Diana Productions, named after her oldest daughter. The third party in this company was Joan's husband and successful independent movie producer Walter Wanger. The company's first movie was the classic noir 'Scarlet Street' from 1945, followed in 1948 by 'Secret Beyond The Door...', both directed by Fritz Lang and starring Joan Bennett. 'Secret Beyond The Door...' was based on the story 'Museum Piece No. 13' by Rufus King from 1946, and adapted into a screenplay by Silvia Richards ('Possessed'). Cinematography was handled by Stanley Cortez ('The Night Of The Hunter') and the dramatic score was composed by Miklós Rózsa ('The Killers').
Felicitous \fi-ˈli-sə-təs\
  1. well chosen or suited to the circumstances
  2. pleasing and fortunate
In 'Secret Beyond The Door...', Joan plays wealthy socialite Celia Barrett, who is off on a vacation to Mexico, her final fling before settling down. There she meets mysterious architect Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), and within days the two are married. However, Mark cuts short their honeymoon when he has to leave unexpectedly, leaving Celia to go to his mansion by herself. There she finds out she doesn't really know all that much about Mark or his past. Mark's overly protective sister Caroline (Anne Revere) meets her at the train station, but she is only the first of many surprises for Celia, and the only happy one. Mark is broke, and maybe out for her money. And that's only the beginning...

It turns out Mark is a widower with a son, David (Mark Dennis) who despises him and blames him for his mother's death. Then there's Mark's secretary Miss Robey (Barbara O'Neill) who always covers part of her face due to a burn scar. And the 'felicitous' rooms Mark collects that he told Celia about, turn out to be rooms showcasing rooms where historic murders took place. Not quite what Celia assumed... And there's one murder room that Mark keeps locked at all time, one she's not allowed to enter, ever...

The movie looks stunning, with exquisitely atmospheric cinematography and sets. If the plot might seem quirky and silly, and it certainly does at times when you are watching this, there are still the visuals to draw you in. The sets, the lighting, the direction, everything is top-notch. And Fritz Lang's Expressionist past even makes an appearance in the form of a strange dream-sequence where Mark is put on trial, with himself as the prosecutor as well as the accused, and the judge and jury all obscured by shadows. It is a very odd scene, but it helps in conveying Mark's unstable mental state of mind, as well as a more terrifying idea for the viewer, that of Celia's murder.

The cast does well for the most part. The gorgeous Joan Bennett usually played the savvy femme fatale in her darker/noir movies, so this more passive and subdued part feels different. But she pulls it off well, aided by her very strong voice-over narration, which is often more whispered than spoken and adds a very spooky mood to the movie. It also helps in establishing Celia's internal insecurity and tendency to overthink things. The always dependable Anne Revere ('Fallen Angel', 'Body And Soul') is sympathetic but somehow secretive as Caroline, and Barbara O'Neil ('Whirlpool', 'Angel Face') is just plain creepy as Miss Robey who has a few secrets hidden behind her scarf.
- My main thesis is that the way a place is built determines what happens in it. [..] Certain rooms cause violence, even murders.
- Mark, my sweet lamb, you're tetched in the head.
- Yeah, maybe I am.
The major letdowns acting-wise are Michael Redgrave as Mark and Mark Dennis as his son David. We'll let Mark Dennis off the hook because he was only 14/15 at the time of shooting and his character is rather silly. But Michael Redgrave is simply miscast in my opinion. The romance between him and Celia/Joan Bennett lacks chemistry of any sort, and he just never exhibits the dark emotional undercurrents that his character has. Redgrave was far from a bad actor, but he was just not the right choice here.

Director Fritz Lang and cinematographer Stanley Cortez fill the movie with beautiful dark shadows and striking shots, accentuated effectively by Rózsa's melodramatic score. The movie's tension builds up nicely throughout into a climactic finale. Unfortunately the final resolution is let down a bit by the old fashioned approach to psychoanalysis and who's to blame (hint: it's always the mother), but it's a minor gripe really. If you are willing to deal with the somewhat wacky ensemble gathered in the Lamphere mansion, a miscast male lead, and a plot that seems to borrow several elements from better movies (like 'Rebecca'), it's a pleasant viewing experience.

'Secret Beyond The Door...' was a commercial failure however, which together with marital issues (eventually leading to Wanger shooting Bennett's agent, and lover, a few years later) and a strained working relationship between Lang and Bennett, led to the end of Diana Productions, after only 2 motion pictures. Both Lang and Bennett later considered this movie a minor, even forgettable, effort but do not let that detract you from this movie. It's an entertaining movie that can even be watched purely for its visuals. An uneven movie, but worth checking out.