“Most people are asleep.”
“Wind was there and space and sun and storm… everything’s beyond the door.”
Fritz Lang’s psychological film noir, Secret Beyond the Door (1947) is suggestive of a dream state, from which the characters never quite emerge. The film draws blurry lines between what is latent and obvious desire. The doors are symbolic of the compartmental anxieties within the dark recesses of the mind. Secret Beyond the Door is steeped in metaphor, sunless and surreal, and an evocative score by Miklós Rózsa. Cinematography is by Stanley Cortez, who is responsible for another dream like milieu in Night of the Hunter (1955). It was Joan Bennett, who insisted on using Cortez as cinematographer.
The film co-stars marvelous character actor Anne Revere as Mark’s sister Caroline, Barbara O’Neil, Natalie Schafer, and Paul Cavanagh.
Bosley Crowther, “… Lang is still a director who knows how to turn the obvious, such as locked doors and silent chambers and roving spotlights, into strangely tingling stuff… For all its psycho-nonsense, this film is mildly creepy.”
The screenplay by Sylvia Richardson is based on Rufus King’s novel Museum Piece No. Thirteen, and also appeared in the December 1945 issue of Red Book.
Long ago I read a book that told the meaning of dreams. It said that if a girl dreams of a boat or a ship she will reach a safe harbor, but if she dreams of daffodils she is in great danger. But this is no time for me to think of danger. This is my wedding day. –Celia Lamphere
The film opens with a voice-over by Joan Bennett. Celia Lamphere, (Bennett) journeys through her surreal and sleepy addiction to her new husband, architect Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). Celia’s obsessed with the suspicion that Mark is hiding hideous secrets, she plans to succumb to his murderous compulsions. But Mark is not the only one with creeping psychosis. Celia herself is driven by a troubled, neurotic psyche that initially drew her to his enigmatic nature.
Celia wanders through a corridor literally and metaphorically, first in a reverie and then a shadowy nightmare. She first meets Mark on a trip to Mexico when she is mesmerized by the power of passion which can drive two men to fight each other to the death for a woman (Donna Martell). “How proud that woman must be to cause death in the streets.” She realizes that Mark is watching her excitement in this, his eyes like fingers. At that moment, Celia has a taste for danger. Like Mark, the thrill of death represents a strong aphrodisiac for her.
Celia: Suddenly I felt that someone was watching me. There was a tingling at the nape of my neck as though the air had turned cool. I felt eyes touching me like fingers. There was a current flowing between us… warm and sweet… and frightening, too, because he saw behind my make-up what no-one had ever seen. Something I didn’t know was there.
Throughout the film Celia strays from reality and finds herself adrift within a conscious flowing daydream. Her voice-over shows she is controlled by the intense beating of her heart. She relates the feeling to drowning “When you are drowning, your whole life flashes before your eyes.”
British actor Michael Redgrave made his U.S. film debut as Mark. Initially Lang wanted James Mason in the lead role. Mark turns dark and brooding soon after he marries his new bride. He has been married before and his first wife has died under curious circumstances. Also part of the plot is his serious young son David — who blames him for his mother’s death.
There is also, his strangely loyal secretary Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neil) who wears a scarf over one side of her face having been disfigured In a fire. One thinks of Rebecca later on. The film co-stars character actor Anne Revere as Mark’s sister Caroline.
Celia: I heard his voice and then I didn’t hear it anymore, because the beating of my blood was louder. This was what I’d hunted those foolish years in New York. I knew before I knew his name or touched his hand and for an endless moment, I seemed to float like a feather blown to a place where time had stopped.
Mark: You were living that fight. You soaked it all in – love, hate, the passion. You’ve been starved for feelings – any real feelings. I thought: 20th Century Sleeping Beauty. Wealthy American girl who has lived her life wrapped in cotton wool but she wants to wake up. Maybe she can.
Celia: Is it as hard as all that?
Mark: Most people are asleep.
Mark shows all the telltales signs that he is delusional, having a preoccupation with several murder rooms and one locked door #7 in his estate. He’s filled with macabre declarations, “I have a hobby collecting ‘felicitous’ rooms”, (Celia mistaking the word for happy, not ‘apt’ for murder) “the way a place is built determines what happens in it”, “certain rooms cause violence even murders.”
Mark Lamphere takes his guests on a tour of his murder rooms.
“As an architect Mark Lamphere gives particular credence to the influence of space and human lives. He repeatedly uses the word “felicitous” to describe his theory that elements of particular space make certain human actions possible. And therefor ‘apt’ for that locale.” — The Dark Mirror Psychiatry and Film Noir by Marlisa Santos
Redgrave understands how to walk that fine line between innate intensity and male hysteria — one just needs to see his performance as Maxwell Frere in Dead of Night’s (1945) segment The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, where he wrestles with his ‘dummy partner’ Hugo.
Mark is fascinated by the connection between the action of murder and the significance of his locked rooms as psychological theatre. The film utilizes production design by Max Parker (Chandu, the Magician 1932, Arsenic and Old Lace 1944) who creates a dreamworld of disruptive psychosis. It’s within this fairytale steeped in misogyny that Redgrave wants to act out his fantasist murderous impulses. Secret Beyond the Door is a retelling of Bluebeard, the archetype of the serial killer who desires to annihilate women who dominate him. We see a hint of Mark’s roiling demons when he takes a group of party guests on a tour of his rooms as curios — original replicas of historic murders. One of his guests, a psychology major, associates the murder of a wife or lover to “unconscious hatred for the mother.”
Celia confronts Mark, “It was the way you immersed yourself in those stories you were almost happy about their deaths.”
“Probably the most overt Freudian depiction of noir psychosis is found in Secret Beyond the Door, a film that features various re-castings of fairy tale patterns bound up with the psychoanalytic interpretations of childhood trauma and sexual relationships. From the start, the film makes no artistic attempt to submerge its psychoanalysis frame […] all of Celia’s fears and desires are open for scrutiny from the time that she first encounters Mark.” — The Dark Mirror Psychiatry and Film Noir by Marlisa Santos
She takes a subconscious journey both surreal and substantive as she navigates her new relationship with Mark and her awakened death wish.
During their honeymoon Celia unleashes Mark’s sinister urges when she locks the door to their room. This catalyst brings his childhood trauma to the surface. As a young boy he perceived a painful transgression by his mother. His recollection of this seemingly insignificant incident turned into hatred of all women, that has carried throughout his life. These machinations bring him to homicidal delusion. His memories are locked away just as his morbid rooms are show pieces.
Celia embraces her husband’s impulses, setting herself up within the replica frozen in time of the death room #7 meant for her. But she desires to unlock Mark’s subconscious as well as his locked room.
Celia- “This is my room, waiting for me”
She waits with lilacs, waiting to trespass on the madness that has led him to this dark place. The link between love and death becomes interwoven as Celia prepares to sacrifice herself to Mark if she cannot save him from his tortured sickness. Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo cover Freud’s fascination with Eros/Thanatos in in their analysis of Secret Beyond the Door, drawing this connection between love and death. Which “according to the film’s logic, death is love’s uncanny double.”
“Inasmuch as closed space can be interpreted as ‘cave’, ‘the grave’, a house, woman… entry into it is interpreted on various levels as ‘death’, ‘conception’ ‘return home’ and so on: moreover all these acts are thought of as mutually identical”.-Teresa de Lauretis
Mark’s voice-overs wrestle with the urge to strangle Celia if left alone with her. He imagines what he will say when asked if the murder was premeditated. Redgrave is framed within the scene by the prominent energy of his twisting a scarf as if he is preparing to strangle Celia. Holding the scarf, the murder weapon from Don Ignacio’s room, his voice-over gives us the sense of the film’s prowling subconsciousness.The darker counterpart to Celia’s dream-like twists and turns.
Mark: There’s something in your face that I saw once before in South Dakota. Wheat country. Cyclone weather. Just before the cyclone, the air has a stillness. A flat, gold, shimmering stillness. You have it in your face – the same hush before the storm and when you smile it’s like the first breath of wind bending down the wheat. I know that behind that smile is a turbulence that…
Mark’s Freudian Oedipal struggle with hatred for his mother and all women with latent murderous desire is never quite explored as deeply as it could be in the film. In flashback we understand that he has been shut out of his mother’s affection in one scene. Though here, murder seems to be an expression of male exasperation, one wonders if this was consequential in creating such a conflicted and disturbed monster?
“The symbolism of shutting Freud’s psychological door is present yet after all the Freudian iconography, the basic motivation lies still in the darkness, with one door closed, leaving us outside the ‘Interior turmoil.’” (Marlisa Santos)
*From Women in Film Noir Edited by E. Ann Kaplan
“In the threatening family mansions of the gothic, or in The Haunting’s evil old Hill House, a door, a staircase, a mirror, a portrait are never simply what they appear to be, as an image from Fritz Lang’s paranoid woman’s film’ Secret Beyond the Door. The title sums up the enigma of many of these films in which the question about the husband’s motives becomes an investigation of the house (and of the secret of a woman who previously inhabited it.)
Freud believed dreams were masks that disguised wish fulfillment. They are metaphorical inroads that point to our subconscious desires. And dreams— like folklore and images in art— are used as symbolism manifesting these unconscious emotional conflicts. Director Fritz Lang very often infused his films with an appetite for expressionist symbolism. With recurring iconography of doors and corridors, Secret Beyond the Door is perhaps one of his most pronounced visions of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams cloaked in the cinematic vogue of film noir.
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