A gothic Freudian nightmare from German maestro Fritz Lang, Secret Beyond the Door was adapted by his frequent collaborator Silvia Richards from a story by Rufus King. A sinister ‘40s twist on the French Bluebeard tale, the film is often considered a minor work in the great Lang’s oeuvre (far behind the almighty The Big Heat in my book), though even a lesser Lang film is better than the worst of most other filmmakers.
While on vacation in Mexico, beautiful trust fund kid Celia (Joan Bennett – Woman in the Window) falls for Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave – in his first American film), a handsome and wildly wealthy architect who has the morbidly quirky hobby of collection replicas of rooms where notorious murders throughout history have taken place. His thesis is that the design of room can dictate the actions that take place within. He spouts off hyper-poetic diatribes about symmetry, space, and murder – surefire signs that he’s a wee bit unstable.
Their whirlwind romance begins to spiral when Celia moves into Mark’s house and learns that he is a widower with a teenage son David that he strongly despises. The source of his scorn is the fact that his son accuses of him or murdering his mother, Eleanor. Mark and David share one scene together that’s truly unnerving to watch. Determined to find out the truth about Eleanor’s mysterious demise, Celia begins questioning Mark’s housekeepers and friends.
The answer may rest behind door number seven – the only of Mark’s replica murder rooms that remains locked at all times. During her quest for the truth, Celia bafflingly attempts to understand Mark’s fractured psyche. While most women with a head on their shoulders would get the hell out of dodge, Celia remains a ride or die chick through and through.
There’s little logic to grasp on to in Secret Beyond the Door, but for fans of darkly palpable atmosphere and surreal psycho-thrillers, this 1947 film is an entertaining 99 minutes. Celia’s arc is the film’s main weak point – even when confronted with the possible reality that her new husband maybe a murderer, she rarely acts in a rational fashion. While Joan Bennett does a fine job with the material, Redgrave bogarts every scene in which he appears. The actor won Best Actor at Cannes for his disturbing, perverse performance. Watching him crumble under his broken conscious is really exciting. By the time he goes full-psycho, Redgrave transcends the film.
But the ending…whoa boy. It’s one of the most abrupt endings I have ever seen in a long time.
Lang and cinematographer Stanley Cortez (Night of the Hunter) inject the film with crisp shadows that squeeze the tension by the throat. The hallway featuring Mark’s murder rooms are shot in an especially anxious fashion and the film never goes more than a couple minutes without offering a stunning, expressive shot.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray release of Secret Beyond the Door offers a great image with speckled cuts every once in a while. The sound mix leaves a lot to be desired, however. There are stretches where the dialogue is inaudible and I found myself adjusting the volume constantly. Regardless, it’s a really compelling film and an interesting entry in Lang’s American output.