I can remember seeing Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door a few times at wide intervals—it was never a movie that showed up very often—on television or in a beat-up print at a revival house. On these occasions there was a mixed sensation of constant admiration—as in, “what an incredible shot”—and constant bafflement, as in “what the hell is going on in this movie?” It seemed to progress too quickly, or too slowly, or in the wrong order, or with crucial scenes missing. Moments of revelation misfired because I was not quite sure what was being revealed.
In Lang’s career the film was a disaster. Made for Universal in partnership with Joan Bennett and her husband Walter Wanger under the independent aegis of Diana Productions, aiming to replicate the slightly scandalous success of their previous Scarlet Street, it was billed as “A Fritz Lang Production” and was intended to establish him in the public eye as an independent operator and a worthy rival of Hitchcock. Instead its box office failure began the downward spiral that would reduce him to the B-movie budgets of House by the River or Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. According to Patrick McGilligan’s biography The Nature of the Beast—which offers a detailed account of the uneasy circumstances under which the film was made—preview audiences came up with ratings like “beyond human endurance.” The screenwriter, Silvia Richards (who worked in close collaboration with Lang, her lover at the time) later remarked: “It had no believability. None.” Lang himself did not defend the film: “It wasn’t my idea to make it… It was jinxed from the beginning.”
To have it now on a Blu-Ray disc (from Olive Films) is to be able finally to come to terms with the sense that it was a film that always needed to be seen again, repeatedly if necessary, as if I had not quite seen it, or as if while I was watching one Secret Beyond the Door, another one slipped down one of the film’s countless corridors and got lost somewhere in the shadowy mansion where the plot, such as it is, unfolds. It is a film of bifurcating paths, split images, elliptical transitions, and mysterious zones of blankness.
Easy to say what it’s about, until you start trying. Celia (Joan Bennett) is afraid that her husband Mark (Michael Redgrave) intends to murder her. They met in Mexico and he’s a stranger to her. He takes her off to live in his ancestral home on the Hudson. Where it turns out he had a previous wife, who died; and has a son, who hates him (the cold child, stiff and bookish, nursing dreams of revenge, who at one point dominates the film and then conveniently disappears from view); and a sister (the great, subsequently blacklisted actress Ann Revere), who radiates quiet intelligence and is evidently aware of much that she is unwilling to articulate; and a live-in secretary with a face disfigured in a fire from which she rescued the son long ago (she keeps half her face covered like Gloria Grahame at the end of The Big Heat), who seems to have surfaced from the Germanic depths of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler or Kriemhild’s Revenge.
When Celia briefly locks Mark out of her boudoir as a teasing jest he goes into a sullen rage. Lilacs send him into fits of squeamish withdrawal. He’s an architect and publishes “a magazine on modern architecture that leads the field” but on his home ground he “collects” meticulously recreated rooms in which murders (coyly described by him as “felicitous events”) have taken place. It all has something to do with his mother, or with her death, or with his first wife’s death.
This was the prime era—in the wake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca—for stories about brooding husbands married on short acquaintance, previous wives mysteriously deceased, large dark mansions staffed by sullen housekeepers. Old Gothic tropes merged conveniently with the latest in modern psychology. What Secret’s script does not lift from Rebecca and Suspicion it lifts from the breezy psychoanalytic encapsulations of Spellbound—not to mention the title art with its mimicry of Spellbound’s Dalí-designed dream sequence. In Secret Beyond the Door, a drama of neurotic fixation takes place in a world where, as if coincidentally, people talk all the time about psychoanalysis. Before the movie begins, we learn, Celia had come close to marrying “a brilliant psychoanalyst.” When her girlfriend talks about repression, Celia chimes in: “Paging Mister Freud.” A “brain-psych major” at a party explains that “in many cases the murder of a girlfriend or wife has its psychological roots in an unconscious hatred for the mother.” It seems that no film could be more explicit about where it’s situating itself, where it’s finding its materials, or to what niche it’s marketing itself.
But explanations and plot summaries explain and summarize little of what Lang does. It’s never in the plot—which you’ve heard before, probably in more coherent form—and never in the overarching explanation (whether embedded in the dialogue or imparted in interviews), which is probably thin and self-contradictory. The only thing to do is watch and listen. With Secret Beyond the Door this is a conflicted process from the start. We start with water dripping into a pool, and as we contemplate the ripple effect become aware of reflected clouds and flowers and stars: as gorgeous a miniature wonderland as Lang ever put on screen, a tiny compendium of glistening artificialities promising infinite depths. We start, in the same instant, with Joan Bennett in voice-over: “I remember long ago I read a book that told the meaning of dreams. If a girl dreams of a boat or ship [we see a paper boat adrift on the water] she will reach a safe harbor… but if she dreams of daffodils [we see silhouettes of flowers] she is in great danger. But this is not time to talk of danger. This is my wedding day.” Cut to a close-up of a church bell tolling in its steeple.
It is all already too much, too densely suggestive, too thick with archetypes. The diverging pathways of image and voice are too much, and the thick layers of Miklós Rózsa’s music will add to the too-muchness. (In his autobiography A Double Life Rózsa describes a further characteristic formal complication, a musical device developed for the film with Lang’s encouragement: “We experimented with having the orchestra play their music backwards, recording it back to front on the tape, and then playing it back as usual; the end result sounded the right way around but had an unearthly quality.”) There was supposed to be a further division: Lang wanted a different actress to do the voice-over for Bennett’s character, to emphasize that “it was a different person—something in us we perhaps don’t know.”
Bennett and Universal nipped that idea but the voice-over is sufficiently strange anyway: strange for the way it continues throughout the film, making a transition from a narrative of the recent past to an accompaniment of scenes that are taking place in the present, often providing the primary content of otherwise actionless scenes of Joan Bennett pacing or sitting or smoking a cigarette. At times someone’s dialogue cuts out as the voice-over overrides it. Just exactly what level of reality is being favored—the level the speaking voice is coming from or the level of the seeing eye—is never altogether fixed. Things become even stranger when, late in the film, Bennett’s voice is abruptly replaced by Michael Redgrave’s. (The strangeness of the voice-overs is unfortunately compounded, on the Blu-Ray, by a sound mix that renders them at times nearly inaudible.)
To ask what it is all about it would first be necessary to be able to define what “it” is—and Lang makes that as difficult as it can be with a density of aesthetic emphasis that he seems to have wanted to push as far as he could. The pressure can feel like a deliberate overburdening. His diagrammatic shots are more intricately geometrized than ever, his penchant for bric-à-brac turns every shot into an encyclopedia of objects. Even in the simplest of shots, making the simplest of narrative points—the early flashback scene where Celia’s older brother counsels her to get married and settle down, in anticipation of what turns out to be his imminent death from heart failure—you might well lose yourself in the angle made by the intersection of her crossed legs with diagonal rays of sunlight, in the composition established by the placement of bookshelves, telephones, piles of paper, pen holders, a folded newspaper, a framed photograph (of Celia, suggesting the near-incestuousness of her brother’s bond with her), and an enigmatic black sculptured head poised on top of a filing cabinet. This is not ever to be confused with clutter, unless one can speak of a glut of sharp purposeful focus and deliberate design. A genuinely accidental detail would come as a relief.
The images are always getting away from themselves, or more precisely folding in upon themselves, just as the words are pulling away from the scene at hand. The more exactly the cinematic effects are managed—and it is an exactitude that advertises its intensity—the more the story itself buckles and breaks into mesmerizing fragments, or splits down the middle like the many two-shots of Celia and her mirror-image (most especially the one where another figure, Mark’s sister, intrudes between image and reflection) or loses itself in mazelike mists like those through which, at one climactic point, Celia wanders in desperate circles.
If we went where it wants us to go we would have to go in many different directions at once; or else, as the other alternative, surrender to the contemplation of the fragments as they emerge into view and then disappear as rapidly. “It’s said that when you drown your whole life passes before you like a fast movie.” This one (although it is not a long movie) doesn’t seem espcially fast—except for those out-of-nowhere transitions that periodically snap your head back.
It is, then, about everything that is brought into awareness within it. Awareness is perhaps what it is about, since, as Mark tells Celia at the outset, “most people are asleep.” Celia likes to sleep late, and tells Mark’s sister Caroline that “I’m not even conscious until I have three cups of coffee.” Awareness comes through startling sounds, images in sudden close-up, human configurations reduced to geometric abstractions: through seeing human life through forms, the way architect Mark presumably sees them. We might be seeing everything through his eyes, as a confirmation of his belief that “the way a place is built determines what happens in it.”
It’s about water, from the start: the pool, the wishing well, the water spouting from fountain, the rain cascading down at strategic moments, the flood waters in which a murder victim (the murderer’s mother) is said to have been drowned, the water in the shower Mark is taking while Celia is in his bedroom stealing a crucial key. It’s about fire, finally, the ordeal by fire being perennial in Lang. The secretary, Miss Robey, had her face scarred by fire; and Celia and Mark will not escape from the movie without passing through flaming corridors that were apparently real enough to make things seriously uncomfortable for Bennett and Redgrave, given the number of takes Lang required to get things just exactly right. As noted above it’s about mirrors, or is at the very least bejeweled with mirrors. It’s about flowers: daffodils in the opening narration but lilacs—the lilacs he tore out of the ground after his mother died—the rest of the way. This being a psychoanalytic movie, flowers are assumed to have something to do with sex and with Mark’s mother and with the indeterminate simmering bundle of rage and terror and resentment that is what he has instead of a personality.
It’s about sex, like all the movies Lang made with Joan Bennett. Here, at the start, sex is Mexico: exoticism, warmth, luxuriant vegetation, a spout of water from the supposedly ancient fountain, a couple of newlyweds tumbling about in a hammock.
Here the houses are not closed in, warm air moves through them, water and starlight seem to penetrate them. Sex is the scene where Celia and Mark “meet cute”: as she watches two men fight to the death over a woman in a Mexican marketplace—“fighting for her with naked knives”—and then becomes aware that a strange man is watching her. (The moment when the lovers first make eye contact is marked by the phrase: “Death was on that street.”)
Sex is 1940s magazine prose describing Celia’s fears about marrying a stranger—“I’m afraid I might close the door to a quiet familiar room where I’ll be safe”—before deciding that “wind was there, and space and sun and storm, everything was beyond that door.” (A strict reading of this could lead to an alternative interpretation of the title: the secret is not inside a locked room, but in the outer spaces not enclosed by the locked room.) The Mexican prologue, Lang’s invention, makes the movie. It’s the vision of a life that in the event is always interrupted, always spoiled by some intrusive sound or symbol, some reminder of a painful or shameful past. The pivot point is when Celia’s prank of locking her door to frustrate Mark, punishing him (on the advice of her Mexican maid who knows what men are) for being too eager to make love, backfires when he stalks away (off screen) after one half-hearted attempt at turning the handle.
Celia looking for Mark after he runs away
So much for the sun-dappled honeymoon. She goes off into the night in a white robe in search of him, gliding down an empty corridor (the first of the seemingly endless succession of empty corridors that will culminate in the one that’s on fire) silhouetted (as so many figures will be silhouetted) and then—in a new shot—coming downstairs framed in light at the center of a network of jagged rectangular lines, bars of shadow forming the most beautiful imaginable cage. It’s the moment when a dream ends; the shot is over so quickly that it is easy to miss.
It’s about light and shadow, some might say only about light and shadow. Faces hidden in shadow. Silhouetted figures seen from behind. Shadows in the unlit rooms where people face each other across vast distances. It’s about silhouettes: about bodies, or more precisely about posture. Lang has the gift of making people look like living statues. A two-shot of a couple talking can look like a dialogue between totem poles. Whatever they do, light a cigarette, walk into a room (half the movie is people walking into or out of rooms), they make a shape, and Lang tracks the intersection of the shapes for reasons known best to himself.
Being about such shapes, and being about an architect, it’s about architecture: about rooms (he collects them); about doors (the opening of any door, not just “the door” referenced in the title, is treated with obsessive attention to detail, and sometimes it takes several shots just to get one open); about locks and keys; about hallways. The hallways are really important. The film often seems to be a set of variations on the idea of someone advancing down a hallway. Stanley Cortez, who so beautifully shot this film as he did The Magnificent Ambersons (with Lang complaining just as Welles did about his meticulous slowness), comes into his own in differentiating the many ways in which the same basic action can be lit.
Mark’s house is a mental construct impossible to diagram. There is no sense of how these spaces could possibly fit together. When, in the midst of a party, he takes the guests on a guided tour of his “felicitous” rooms, it’s a movie within the movie—three different murderers in three different habitats, their crimes represented only by gliding camera and scattered props: wineglass, scarf, rapier. Like all Langian houses this one is well furbished with those trays and figurines and wall art and precisely arranged furniture that make every shot a compartmentalization of space, at once oppressive and (by its elegance) curiously weightless. Weightless oppressiveness might even be another way of getting at the core of Lang’s aesthetic.
It’s about murder; about women; about the murder of women. Except the only murders that really happened, it turns out, were the historical ones that Mark recreated through the mise-en-scène of his empty rooms, savoring their unreal reality—their “unholy emanation”—as an ultimate aesthetic bliss: “She was nothing to him anymore—a thing without a soul.” All of this provides marvelous entertainment for the women who accompany his tour of the rooms. Celia’s sophisticated friend tosses out laughingly: “There must be something short of murder to demonstrate male exasperation!” But later on, when Celia and Mark are alone in a darkened living room, standing what looks like miles apart while drenching rain falls outside—just after he assures her that “it’s good to be alone with you”—she can’t stop thinking about “the way you [that is to say, he] immersed yourself in those stories, as if you were happy about their deaths.”
There is no murder. The crime at the heart of it is odder. Mark’s wife died because he didn’t love her—she had lost the will to live and succumbed to an illness that might not otherwise have been fatal—and for this he feels a murderer’s guilt. All this Celia surmises from fragments of dialogue and the clues that Mark leaves around in the form of his obsessive interior decoration. And she asks herself the question for whose utterance the film has perhaps been designed: “Can one kill by purposely denying someone love, by taking away the desire to live?” Murder by evasion, by absence.
The absence of any real murder opens up a void. Instead there are just these people—this waxworks of characters that nonetheless triggers real signals of buried feeling. It’s a mausoleum of emotion, laid out like the Native American masks—Pacific Northwest Coast apparently—with which an ancestor decorated the mansion’s walls.
It’s about Mark and his fear of being locked in, with which he deals by creating locked rooms that no one else is allowed to enter. Beyond the last of which lies “the secret.” But there is no secret to be revealed that could be any more of a revelation than the whole movie. In the forbidden room Celia parts a curtain and finds a brick wall. But every shot is a curtain parting. Every shot is a brick wall. The fear of being locked in might be equated with the fear of actually living inside a Fritz Lang movie.
It’s about Mark… Mark with his quivering sense of his own intellectual superiority. His amused contempt for women—“No woman can think”—masquerading as awed respect for their intuitive capacities, until the moment when it explodes into ranting declarations: “Ever since I was a child I’ve been hemmed in by women!” When he is not on the verge of hysterics he is possessed by an exquisite sensitivity to form and ratio. When Celia cuts the base of a candle—so she can use the wax to make a copy of the key to the forbidden room—he notices immediately, after she puts it back in the candelabra, that it’s shorter. The lack of symmetry screams out at him.
He is by turns uncompromising intellectual sophisticate; sarcastic bully; hyper-alert paranoid genius; zombie in the grip of uncontrollable inner commands. He is a modernist wit who edits the most advanced architectural review. He is a father who hated his wife and hates his son. Tremulous, petulant, witheringly sardonic, he manipulates Celia with his constant mood changes, like a cult leader keeping his flock perpetually off-balance. Or rather a parody of all that, too comical to be frightening. It’s as if they were all making fun of him, all the women in the house, living and dead: Celia, Caroline, Miss Robey, the dead wife, the dead mother. Not only is he a joke, Michael Redgrave’s thin little smile lets on again and again that he knows he’s a joke.
He is finally too absurd a figure for it to be about him. It’s when the voice-over switches from Celia to Mark that the film breaks apart once and for all. We find ourselves inside Mark’s head, as he stands trial in a cut-rate expressionist courtroom for killing Celia. He is interrogated by a remorseless prosecutor who is—himself. In front of a faceless judge and a faceless jury. He cries out: “There are dark forces in us—we’re all of us children of Cain!”
But it’s not over. Everything will begin again. Again the mirror. Again the scarf. Again the door portentously opening. Again the flowers. “Did your mother hurt you, Mark, when you were a child?” Everything will be repeated again and again until the house burns down and he is cured, sort of. Back on the sun-dappled hammock in Mexico acknowledging that he has a long way to go.
It is so much about Mark that he altogether ceases to exist. He was not much more than a wraith to begin with. It is Celia who is real, Celia whose presence is the only thing that has ever anchored any of what we have been watching to a life that feels actual. An empty life, she assures us. She does do an awful lot of chain-smoking. Her best friend is a chattering lightweight with an idiotic husband, her most ardent male suitor a cardboard lawyer. But that is the life of modern city-dwellers, of art galleries and psychoanalysis, of bantering repartee and souvenir-hunting on Mexican vacations. The real world, not the manor house inhabited by archetypes and dream-totems, a house which her lawyer friend assures her is “mortgaged to the hilt.” The financial flimsiness seems a figure for the made-up quality of everything that has do with Mark: his childhood, his phobias, his repressed desires, the cast of characters living and dead from whom his own being cannot be disentangled.
Celia is unencumbered except by the movie itself. She has money, she has leisure, she has the sexual magnetism that was Joan Bennett’s gift to the movies of Fritz Lang. Celia’s impulse to break free—to leave Mark and go back to her city life—might mirror Joan Bennett’s uneasy relation to Lang’s directorial control. The hardboiled skepticism and worldly impatience she radiates makes her the most unlikely of innocent victims lost in a big dark house. With Bennett as victim, it’s the murderer who seems bewildered and out of his depth. The knowing rasp of her voice—the voice that Lang had tried to erase from the narration—sounds a note of jadedness that undercuts the mood of terror and obsession. She would be precisely that ingredient of accident that the film lacked, if she were not herself finally incorporated, just barely and by struggle, into the design. When Mark finally goes through the ritualistic steps of his attempt to murder Celia, she’s directing him, yanking him through the scene like a tough-as-nails mother figure dragging the neurotic artist out of his eternal childhood. She might be the very image of Fritz Lang at work—focused, precise, somewhat bullying until the effect is lined up just as intended.
Even at their most real-looking, Lang’s movies seem always like pictures retrieved from some inner place. Yet he rarely sought to engage with the suggestion of interior consciousness, with voyages into realms of memory and dream. Everything is material; everything is external. The most exotic and unlikely details are laid out as if they were no more fantastic than a desk in an empty hotel room. The psychoanalytic work undertaken by Secret Beyond the Door could easily be seen as Lang’s own oblique form of self-analysis, a movie taking place within his mind and with himself (as far as he could manage it through force of directorial will) playing all the parts, Celia just as much as Mark: the self-portrait, perhaps, of an artist profoundly disinclined to self-disclosure.
GEOFFREY O'BRIEN is the author of The Fall of the House of Walworth, Sonata for Jukebox, The Browser's Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, and other books. His six collections of poetry include most recently Early Autumn. Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writings on Film 2002-2012 will be published later this year by Counterpoint.