By WALLACE McBRIDE
Here’s SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR in a nutshell: A woman thinks her new husband might be responsible for the death of his previous wife, and worries that she’s next on the chopping block.
At that level, DOOR is a pretty traditional noir, and might have been a forgettable entry into the genre had it not been for director Fritz Lang. As it stands, the film is a little gross, but not in the way that the sexual politics of older films can be typically offensive.
DOOR goes a little deeper than that, probing into the nature repressed sexual desires ... and not the so-called “normal” urges that preoccupy most on-screen romances, either. These urges are lethal. SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR is wrapped in a flurry of messages, some of them possibly even a little mixed. Joan Bennett plays Celia, a wealthy young woman with too much time and money on her hands. Desperately looking to make a lasting emotional connection (and clearly unable to admit that she craves a little excitement in her life) she casually agrees to marry the attorney handling her late brother’s estate. Her attentions quickly turn elsewhere after meeting a mysterious architect while on holiday in Mexico.
Celia finds herself aroused while witnessing a vicious knife fight on a city street, during which she first lays eyes on the moody Mark Lamphere, played by Michael Redgrave. Bennett’s character is painted as a late-blooming thrill seeker, and her “romance” with Lamphere is clearly a terrible idea for all involved. Swept up in the adrenaline rush (and related sexual adventures, but we’ll get to that in a moment) she decides to marry Lamphere and mothball much of her former life.
It doesn’t take long for Celia to realize she’s made a mistake. Mark has a combative, possibly deranged son named David he forgot to mention during their brief courtship. He also neglects to mention having a deceased wife.
His secretary is a woman who hides a facial disfigurement behind an ever-present scarf, while his sister, Caroline, seems to be filling the role of mother and spouse to her brother. When Mark eventually joins her at their home, his behavior only grows more bizarre: he hosts a party for their friends and gives them a sinister tour of the residence, which has seen more than its fair share of murdered women. He stoically regales them with tales of their deaths as he struggles to hide the same kind of arousal Celia experienced during the knife fight in Mexico. It’s this sexual attraction to death that brought them together, but his unexpected “murder tour” suggests it will also tear them apart. Adding to the mystery is that one of these rooms on the tour is always kept locked, and involves a story that Lamphere refuses to divulge.
In every way that matters, though, SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR is a werewolf story. There are no silver bullets or gypsy curses on display, but DOOR has more in common with THE WOLF-MAN than thematic cousins like THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS or even THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Werewolf stories are almost always all about humanity’s inexplicable rage and violence and, once rendered to their essential components, are essentially myths to explain these phenomena. It doesn’t take much effort to connect characters like Bruce Banner, Norman Bates and the anti-hero of SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, Mark Lamphere.
The script is a bit of a mess, but its heart is in the right place. Lang’s usual fascination with the politics of sexual entanglement is front and center in DOOR, sometimes to its own detriment. It’s not a subtle movie, which makes for a visual treat, but also contributes to an occasionally obvious narrative. Lang abides by the Hays Code in a way that seems almost trollish, playing by the letter of the code, but certainly not its spirit. For the first half of the movie, Bennett and Redgrave do nothing but screw, and the constant “We’re not talking about sex, but we’re really talking about sex” innuendo and symbolism gets a little tiresome. Had Lang had the luxury to shoot all of the sex scenes that are alluded to in this film, it would have run longer than the restored version of METROPOLIS.
Also, it seems a little artless for a psychological thriller to comment so overtly on psychology as does SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR. Sigmund Freud is referenced often enough in the film to almost qualify for an on-screen credit, which runs counter to the movie’s expressionistic flourishes. One of the film’s most memorable moments is a delirious trial staged by Lamphere’s own imagination. It allows Lang to pull out all the visual stops, and lets Redgrave chew the scenery to splinters. It’s a great sequence, but undermined elsewhere in the film by attempts to explain his behavior via pop (and outright false) psychological theory. Why dabble in symbolism if you’re going to have your characters tell you what it means? It’s a little like telling a joke and then explain why it’s funny.
These problems don’t exist without purpose, though. Lang is fascinated by the reasons men and women come together, especially when they most certainly should not. And, while the movie’s sexual dynamics are a little dated, it makes them no less disturbing or compelling. Neither Lamphere nor his wife know how to escape their predicament, leading Bennett’s character to literally offer herself up as sacrifice to his violent compulsions. All of this would be a lot more profound if the film didn’t feel the need to constantly underline its own ideas at every corner, but the movie’s theme is as relevant as ever.
This column is among those featured in
BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of
horror essays written by contributors to
THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
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These days, SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR exists in a kind of twilight, in that it’s a movie that’s neither entirely forgotten, nor especially well remembered. Ironically, had it been made by another director, DOOR might actually be a more interesting movie to cinephiles. It’s a psychological thriller tarted up in Universal Monster drag, which is a fascinating conceit ... but, for Lang, the movie is not one of his more inspired works. When you’ve got films like METROPOLIS, M, THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE and SCARLET STREET on your credits, you have to do a great deal better than SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.
All that aside, it’s a fun movie. Not only is it fucking weird by anyone’s standards, SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR genuinely earns its tension. Much like PSYCHO (a movie that owes a significant debt of gratitude to DOOR) it’s a film that relies on more than its bare premise to engage the audience. Lang understood that the mystery of Lamphere’s wild mood swings would only carry the story so far, and allows DOOR to not only embrace its bizarre pretensions, but ramps them up to a degree that might even have shamed Bob Clampett.
(Wallace McBride is the proprietor of The Collinsport Historical Society.)