Fritz Lang was a master at creating layers in his films. Many tend to work on multiple levels, without ever forgetting the simple necessity to entertain an audience. They also sometimes appeal to a variety of interests. You see other filmmakers, contemporaries and unofficial disciples, in certain things. You see film noir come almost full circle in Lang's work. The psychological curiosity attached to Lang films predates and then parallels a lot of Hitchcock's pictures. An uneasy paranoia that infects so much of what Lang put on the screen would emerge again in the American 1970s. Watching Lang is perhaps the most full and complete cinematic experience available from any director in film history. (And that's not an intended slight on, say, Ford or Hitchcock; it's simply indicative of the respect due Lang.)
Secret Beyond the Door has existed near the margins or along some fringe area for too long now. A potential reason for this has been the movie's lack of general availability. While DVD editions have trickled out across Europe in R2, there's been nothing in either the UK or stateside until now. Television screenings have also been infrequent. So it might feel like a fresh Lang film to many of his even more loyal fans. It was actually made during a somewhat stagnant period for the director, which saw him doing some of his least impressive feature work after coming to Hollywood. Scarlet Street had been just a couple of years earlier, in 1945, but Secret Beyond the Door falls between some decidedly inferior titles like Cloak and Dagger and American Guerrilla in the Phillippines. It wasn't until '52 or '53 when Lang seemed to fully snap out of his funk, putting together a fascinating string of pictures before leaving Hollywood for good. (The final two of these, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, were RKO releases and are also out on DVD in the UK from Exposure Cinema.)
As with Scarlet Street before it, Secret Beyond the Door was produced by Walter Wanger and has his wife, Joan Bennett, who'd also teamed with Lang on Man Hunt and The Woman in the Window, as the female lead. Here she carries the picture as a sympathetic, slightly mysterious newlywed whose own psychological hang-ups make her a far more interesting character than she would be otherwise. Bennett can be undervalued as a screen presence and really came into her own in the 1940s, with the four Lang pictures and, especially, Max Ophuls' The Reckless Moment. She's joined by Michael Redgrave, who plays the other half of the whirlwind marriage. Their relationship and romantic entanglement is a big psychoanalytical puzzle. However, for all of the attempted Freudian elements and potential Hitchcock resemblances, Secret Beyond the Door exists nicely in the realm of Lang. Dig those shadows.
Bennett is Celia, a never married New Yorker whose older brother has recently died and left her with a considerable trust fund. She narrates in voiceover, beginning the film by telling us she's finally about to get married. Love has eluded her. It seems that she's been waiting for a specific feeling that never came. Until now, until a chance encounter while on vacation in Mexico with her friend Edith (Natalie Schafer). She'd been due to marry, largely out of convenience, a friend in New York but she didn't love him. Celia instead is struck immediately by a man she sees amongst a crowd as a fight is breaking out, in Mexico. She's so intrigued as to be almost oblivious to the fight, even when a knife is hurled in her direction and misses her hand by only a few inches. The man is an architect named Mark Lamphere (Redgrave). They'll be married within hours.
Lang had a particular knack for enveloping the viewer into whatever world he'd created for any given picture. I always find his pacing to be unmatched. A consequence of this is that he often, more than most, built the film scene to scene and made the entire thing easily susceptible to what we would consider to be spoilers today. So the magic is there regardless, but the way Lang told a story should never be overlooked or taken for granted. First-time viewers owe it to themselves to avoid the spoilers and let Lang guide them through a film like Secret Beyond the Door. At the same time, any substantial discussion at all requires some plot points to be referenced and, thus, a trip to spoiler territory.
While the psychological and Freudian aspects of the film are positioned to get the most attention, those are probably much lower down the list of why Secret Beyond the Door remains a fascinating picture in Lang's career. Stylistically, it's almost perfect. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez, who wasn't Lang's first choice, is deeply and beautifully evocative. Bennett is framed in a consistently powerful way, allowing Celia to gain a position of strength and substance when she's almost constantly being challenged elsewhere. She's often faced with her own image in the mirror as though it were a means of having to look inside herself as she's acclimating to Mark and his home. The shadows that engulf Celia in the house evoke danger and fear, and certainly bring to mind the stylistic elements of film noir. Secret Beyond the Door might not qualify as a traditional noir, but it's impossible to overlook how comfortably the suspense, paranoia, guilt, and intrigue match up next to the film's striking visuals.
Guilt is something you'll find attached in virtually every Lang film, in an impressive variety of ways. It's the single most consistent theme, explored again and again, from Lang. Here it's key, since Celia seems to feel a slight sense of guilt at the idea of leaving Mark, even after she knows that he plans to murder her. In turn, Mark harbors guilt for his first wife's death and fights with himself over the burgeoning bout of guilt that will come with killing Celia. A fever dream sequence of an imaginary court proceeding, with Mark as both defendant and attorney and all the other men's faces obscured in darkness, is a delicious product of this. The mother-son and other familial intricacies with Mark are where the Freudian theories come in. They're a little quaint now, still interesting to watch unfold no matter how unconvincing but left somewhat untidy. Psychological studies in the movies are destined to look dated. Hardly anything from the '40s or '50s stands as less than embarrassing from just this standpoint.
Two elements that do still grab the viewer in Secret Beyond the Door are the rooms that Mark has recreated and the playing out of Celia's discovery of the titular reveal. The former is fascinating, creepy, and unlike most anything you'll see in a studio picture from this decade. Here's a guy who pieces together actual parts of rooms where historical murders have occurred. Supremely odd, yet hardly anyone catches on to how disturbed he is. The latter occurrence, when Celia realizes what room number 7 represents, is downright chilling. The way the scene unfolds makes for one of the great, largely unheralded moments of fright in classic Hollywood cinema. The notion itself isn't so surprising since the clues have been building up to the idea. It's how Lang shows it that is so impressive, and creepy.
Secret Beyond the Door ends with a minor headscratcher in that Celia and Mark have somehow found a way to now apparently be together happily ever after. Lang's films, probably because he skirted around the Production Code with such deftness, sometimes tend to deflate at the finish when commercial interests and Code enforcement gain importance. Still, this ending, however unlikely, can be seen as a supporting gesture of Celia's actions. She stuck with Mark, believing in him and hopeful she could heal his trauma. The wrap-up is definitely neat, but it shouldn't deter from the whole. Secret Beyond the Door stands out even in a filmography as great as that of Fritz Lang. It's a moody, captivating piece from an artist working deeply within his element.
Continuing with its affection for the American films of Fritz Lang, Exposure Cinema has released Secret Beyond the Door on DVD in the UK. Unlike the earlier editions of While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, this PAL disc is region-free. Anyone who complains that all of the classic catalog titles are now getting relegated to made-on-demand status owes it to himself or herself to plop down the cash for this very reasonably priced and properly pressed release. Supporting a small label like Exposure is just about the only way we'll be able to see more of the same.
The film has been progressively transferred and is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It looks quite nice overall, boasting a remaster that has surely improved and updated the available quality. Grain is present, but rendered well enough. There are some visible scratches remaining in the print which are fairly light and never a distraction. Contrast, a key element of a film so moody and shadowed, is consistently good. Remembering that this is a 1947 film, there should be no reason for hesitation in purchasing this based on the image.
Audio likewise is impressive. The English mono track is pleasingly clear and lacking from any lengthy bouts of hiss or crackle. Dialogue suffers no issues, keeping at a steady level of volume throughout the film. Miklos Rozsa's entrancing score also comes through well, balancing fine with Joan Bennett's narration and the exchanges of dialogue. Hooray for the presence of subtitles on a classic DVD release. These are optional, in English, and what could be described as a pale orange color (better than yellow, still not preferable to white).
The on-disc special features are not really substantial but they do at least show that some care was taken with this release. A Stills Gallery is divided into three parts. These play as short videos with the images changing as time elapses rather than as a user-controled slideshow. The categories are Posters and Lobby Cards (1:27), Publicity Stills (3:26), and Behind the Scenes (1:07). Filmographies of Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett, Michael Redgrave, Anne Revere, and Barbara O'Neil can also be accessed from the menu.
Most encouraging is the presence of a 12-page booklet inside the case. It features three short and concise but nonetheless helpful pieces by a trio of writers. The first is a general bit on the film while the second looks at Hollywood and Freud and the third is about Fritz Lang's time in Tinseltown. Viewing notes on the aspect ratio, a feature familiar from Masters of Cinema booklets, can be found inside the front cover, which is adorned by stylish poster art.
This deserves to be a breakthrough release for Exposure Cinema for a number of reasons. It looks great and a modest booklet has been added to the list of special features. The film itself has been one of Fritz Lang's harder to find titles yet absolutely is ripe for rediscovery, with its exceptional visuals and a performance from Joan Bennett that ranks with her finest. And unlike with the two earlier Lang films put out by Exposure, there is no potential aspect ratio question and no DVD-R equivalent stateside. Potential buyers, which should mean anyone with an interest in classic film, have no reason to resist a purchase.