Feb 042011

Secret Beyond the Door
Directed by Fritz Lang

Bluebeard lends itself spectacularly well to cinematic adaptation. There have been dozens of filmed versions of the story, from Georges Melies’ 1901 Le barbe-bleu to Catherine Breillat’s exquisite Bluebeard (2009).[1] In fact, the film is almost as deeply entrenched in the movies’ narratives as Cinderella, the basis for basically every rom-com ever made. One might even say that Bluebeard is the flip-side to Cinderella, its dark morning after. Whether or not the movies hew close to the original fairy tale, Bluebeard’s influence can be found on virtually every “my husband-is-trying-to-kill-me” genre offering, from noir to women’s picture to horror.

Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948) updates the tale by setting it in contemporary New York and layering it with Freudian interpretation. The film begins with water: a shot of a shallow lake, a little paper boat floating on its surface and daffodils growing off to the side. The heroine tells us in voice over: “If you dream of daffodils, it means danger. But this is no time to think of danger. This is my wedding day.” Freud’s dream lexicon announces the film’s intentions early on, and they never waver. Like the bride, Lang wants his film to have “something old, something new” and so melds ancient tropes with modern science.

Our heroine, Celia (Joan Bennett), is more or less engaged to her late brother’s friend and lawyer, a stolid man she refers to as “Decent Bob.” Bob, being decent, wants to wait a respectable interval before wedding the dead man’s sister, and sends her off to Mexico for a holiday and one last fling.

While in Mexico, she becomes smitten with architect Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave) and they wed after an extremely brief courtship. The rest of the plot ought to be familiar to fairy tale readers. After they elope in Mexico, she goes to live at his palatial country house  only to discover a number of broody secrets at the old mansion: a domineering sister, creepy servants, a dead wife he never mentioned, and an odd, preternaturally self-possessed young son. But Celia takes it all in stride. (She’s extremely mellow and undemanding for a trust fund baby. When her new sister-in-law asks her what she’d like to eat she replied, “Oh, I’ll eat anything.”) And, as the film progresses, Celia will show increasing amounts of nerve, heart and backbone and ultimately save herself from her Bluebeard not by throwing herself on his mercy but through sheer brains and will.

Lang demonstrates familiarity and understanding when it comes to the source material. In one shot, our heroine sits before a mirror, recalling the line, “[Bluebeard] had many fine mirrors…” Mirrors are, of course, an obvious sort of symbol, as are the water, doorways, hallways, locks, keys and rooms that echo throughout the film like a scream reverberating in an empty chamber. The fact that these common symbols are so accessible to us is what makes the film so effective: to even articulate their meaning seems futile; to let them wash over us with a gasp of shared awareness and understanding — this is what makes Secret Beyond the Door such a pleasure.

The other great pleasure of this very of-its-time movie is watching the clever use of Freudian analysis both explicitly, within the narrative, and as part of the film’s final resolution. In one scene, a rainstorm drives dozens of guests inside the country mansion during a party. To amuse them, our hero takes them on a tour of his “room collection.” Remember, he’s an architect. Of course, this is no ordinary collection of replicas. These are the real thing: artifacts and and furniture lifted from the very famous rooms where notorious murders took place. The bedchamber of a French nobleman’s wife (a nod to Perrault); a low-class basement when a young man tied his mother to a chair and let her drown; and the boudoir of a Paraguayan conquistador who took pleasure in the fine art of torturing and killing his wives. Celia’s face during these revelations (this was her first tour of the room collection) is indescribable. Stealing these scenes are a couple of very minor characters, two guests at the party. They are young college-age girls who whisper to each other during the narration. Finally, one of them interjects: “If the murderer had had analysis, it probably would have quenched his desire to kill.” Her friend leans in and whispers, “She’s a very brainy psych major.”

Celia is no stranger to psychoanalysis, having dabbled in it in her pre-Mexico days. (Whoever she was seeing must have done something right, for she takes everything extremely calmly, all things considered.) By the end of the film, the audience, too, has received a master class in repressed memory, the Oedipus complex, and the power of talk therapy. Though the audience at the theatre I was at chuckled knowingly and derisively at every mention of psychoanalysis, I was impressed not only because that was still fairly highbrow stuff at the time the film was made, but also because it was a fairly brilliant — and effective — method of adapting Bluebeard’s symbolic effects for modern audiences. As Tom Gunning writes:

“Using Freudian themes as new plot enigmas and as an excuse for dream sequences with Expressionistic or surrealistic visual elements were aspects the popular women’s film and the new art house fare shared in such films as John Brahms’ The Locket of 1946, the British The Seventh Veil of 1947; or most influential of all, Hitchcock’s 1943 Spellbound. Secret is firmly in this tradition.”[3]

That many consider Secret to be a failure, or a poor shadow of other, superior paranoid-wife films — such as Gaslight — is unfortunate, because it is merely the narrative, in particular the Freudian elements, that put the critics off. The gorgeous mise-en-scene, the characters’ cumulative creepiness — this cannot be the problem. I would argue that one has to suspend a certain logical part of the brain to let the story in, as one often does in fairy tales (“A wolf? in a granny’s nightdress? I don’t buy it!”). Also, the film was quite beleaguered during production and certain key conceptual elements were abandoned.[2] Consider this: initially, Joan Bennett’s voice-over was to have been supplied by another actress, symbolizing the split between the conscious and unconscious mind.[4] If you do get a chance to watch it, keep that fact in mind and tell me if it wouldn’t have been a more uncanny movie. Though it was a box-office failure, it is so tautly woven as a work of art that one has to respect it.  To quote Tom Gunning again:

“One might describe Secret Beyond the Door as the ruin of a great film, or the ruin of a great filmmaker. Through its collapse, structures are revealed that are more astonishing than the more structurally sound edifices of lesser filmmakers.”

It is hard not to admire the very architectural structure of Secret, and how that creates the film’s very specific sort of horror. Consider Anthony Vidler’s observations in Architecture of the Uncanny: “The house has provided a site for endless representations of haunting, doubling, dismembering, and other terrors in literature and art…” Making Mark Lamphere an architect who collects rooms is an absolutely inspired artistic choice. “The way a place is built determines what happens in it,” the hero/villain theorizes. “Certain rooms cause violence, even murder.” When Celia finally sees his collection of deathly chambers, she rebukes him: “You told me you collected rooms where happy events occurred.” “I didn’t say happy,” he retorts, “I said felicitous. Look it up in the dictionary. It means fitting, apt.” In another one of the film’s great little rhyming details, the architectural magazine he edits is called “APT.”

Fittingly, for a movie that continuously gazes in on itself, the film is full of self-reference to fairy tales. When he meets his future bride, Mark Lamphere describes her as a “20th century Sleeping Beauty,” referring to her sheltered, privileged life. And after she arrives at their literally palatial home, Celia asks, “Where is my beast?” in reference to her husband. Secret is aware of its lineage, and celebrates that aspect. Those audience members at the screening I attended who seemed to want something hard-boiled, or were perhaps looking for camp, would do well to remember it. I have more faith that this audience, the readers of CdF, will surely recognize, when they see it, that they are watching a marvelously adapted, truly modern noir fairy tale.

1 On Sur La Lune Fairy Tales, an excellent resource, almost every filmic adaptation of Bluebeard is listed (except for Breillat’s 2009 Bluebeard, which it seems they haven’t gotten around to adding yet).  http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/bluebeard/themes.html

2 This ultimately led to the disbanding of Lang’s production company, Diana Productions. On a side note, I have to respect a man who names anything Diana.

3. Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang, BFI 2008

4. R. Emmet Sweeney, Magnificent Ruin: Secret Beyond the Door http://moviemorlocks.com/2010/09/14/we-are-all-children-of-cain-secret-beyond-the-door1948/

A note on availability: Secret Beyond the Door is only available on PAL DVD and can be rented in the UK at Lovefilm. For those in the US and Canada, it plays occasionally on TCM, so stay tuned!

 Posted by at 2:58 pm

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