A blend of “Bluebeard,” Rebecca, Spellbound, and Jane Eyre, Secret Beyond the Door is quite an odd film. It would be easy to write it off as silly and absurd, with weak script elements, and frustrating Freudian plot devices. But despite these flaws, there is something truly magical and eerie about the film and it deserves to be rescued from obscurity. Though this falls in with the women’s psychological thrillers that were popular during the time – Rebecca, Suspicion, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, The Spiral Staircase, Possessed, and others – this is somewhat of a different spin on the same theme. Celia is not one of the token fragile, needy, and vulnerable women of these other films. The film acknowledges that she has flaws of her own, but also the strength, the perseverance, and possibly insanity to pursue Mark, despite his potential psychosis.
This was Joan Bennett’s fourth film with Fritz Lang – after Man Hunt, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street – and this is her last. She is also at her most beautiful and mysterious here and it’s easy to see a link between Celia and her character in Dark Shadows many years later. Celia is a more complex character than some of her Gothic predecessors. She is essentially an independent, spoiled heiress and socialite bored with her life of pleasure and looking to settle down. One of her introductory scenes involves a deadly knife fight in a Mexican market. Instead of running in terror, Celia is clearly invigorated, if not outright aroused by the scene, despite the fact that a stray knife lands inches from her.
This was Michael Redgrave’s first American film and it comes hot on the heels of his British horror effort, Dead of Night, where he chews the scenery with equal amounts of gusto as he does in Secret Beyond the Door. Redgrave's Mark is also central to the film’s messiness. Though he has a few thoroughly charming moments (I’m not sure why I find him so charismatic, but it’s the same case in The Lady Vanishes), it’s difficult to understand why Celia would want to stay with him (OK, maybe not that difficult). He is controlling, moody, possessive, and secretive, and exhibits plenty of awful behavior before his loving side is revealed. He seems to be in the same mold as Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester or Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, but is not quite fully realized and comes across as a weak character. The film claims that much of Mark’s troubles emerged from women controlling his life – his mother, his sister, his first wife, and his secretary – but, perhaps paradoxically, he is shown as not being able to care for himself. He let his wife die, he is financially in trouble, and is unable to control or care for his own son. There is certainly a sense of suspended adolescence with both he and Celia and seems to be one of the driving forces that attracts them to each other.
The other element is, of course, sex. Like some of Lang’s other films with Bennett, much of this film is spent in or near beds and the bedroom. The hidden bedroom also provides a richer symbolic subtext, one tied in to Mark’s murder-themed rooms, the titular secret room (the room his first wife died in), and the burning of the house at the film’s conclusion. Due to the involvement of the Production Code, sex is implied, but modern audiences may miss this. It is at least relatively clear that Mark and Celia’s powerful attraction is a blend of sex and violence, affection and neurosis. This relationship between sex and death could have been more developed in the film’s conclusion, though it likely never would have gotten past the censors.
SPOILERS. The film ends with two revelations. The first is that the secretary was not deformed in a fire, but has manipulated her way into staying in the house because she’s in love with Mark. She attempts to burn the house down when she thinks Celia is alone, planning to get rid of her competition. There was a fire when Mark’s son was a child, where she saved the boy’s life, and it is implied she was the cause for this as well. The second revelation is that Mark is a killer in his mind, though not in life. His first wife essentially died of a broken heart, because he did not return her love, but he has always been plagued by thoughts of murder. The film’s conclusion implies that Celia breaking into the secret room, the burning of the house, and other events have somehow cured him of this.
This really is a marvelous film, perhaps only ruined by some clumsy attempts at psychology and the characters’ unfortunate habit of attempting to explain away the film’s rich use of symbolism. And it is rich, thanks Lang’s return to German expressionism as blended with the Gothic. There is some absolutely lovely cinematography from Stanley Cortez that prefigured his similar work on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. The woodland set – where Celia runs when she thinks Mark is going to murder here – is breathtaking, eerie, and nightmarish, and a perfect emphasis on the fairy-tale source of the material. But the house is where the film really shines with lighting sources often reduced to candlelight, reflections in ornate mirrors, or the beam of a single flashlight. The camera absolutely worships Bennett, who is framed by long, dark hallways, foreboding corridors, and that staple of noir – the winding staircase.
Speaking of noir, there is the wonderful use of almost whispered voice-over throughout the film. At first, Celia narrates, but then descends into stream of conscious dialogue and psychological speculation on the events at hand. There’s a great noir-like scene (similar to The Stranger on the Third Floor) where Mark has a dream sequence imagining his own trial for killing Celia. Finally, there’s a Dali-like opening credits reminiscent of Spellbound (1945) and a wonderful score from Miklós Rózsa, who won an Academy Award for his work on Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
There’s a barebones Blu-ray from Olive Films, though thankfully they’ve rescued and restored this obscurity. Once again, I would love to see a special edition Fritz Lang Blu-ray box set full of his American noir works, packed to the gills with special features. Secret Beyond the Door is a very strange film, but comes highly recommended. Giallo fans might enjoy it, though it lacks graphic bloodshed and actually contains no murders at all, just the ever present threat of death.