Halloween Watch: Secret Beyond the Door (1947)
Once again Adam and Samantha bring you their take on a spooky classic movie.
S: The first time I saw this movie, years ago, I adored it. I thought it was suspenseful; I couldn't wait to find out what was going on with her husband. This time, I was disappointed. Not only does it steal copiously from Rebecca (the sinister woman in charge of running the house, the implication that her new husband may have murdered his first wife, the enormous old mansion, the fire), but it pales severely in comparison. When I first saw this though, I hadn't seen Rebecca, which probably accounts for why I enjoyed it so much.
A: When I first saw this movie, I had already seen most of Fritz Lang’s Hollywood pictures and had especially loved Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. I basically learned film history in reverse. Case in point: my introduction to Joan Bennett was from her last feature film Suspiria, which I had fanatically re-watched over a span of years first on VHS and later on laserdisc. The title Secret Beyond the Door even reminded me of that later film the plot of which revolves a horrific secret behind a hidden door. It’s not a coincidence either—in Suspiria the trick to opening the door (I won’t spoil anything) is an allusion to an element in the Lang film, as I was later to learn. Still, Secret Beyond the Door remained a somewhat elusive title and it wasn’t until a French DVD was released in 2003 that I was finally able to watch it. I had the opposite reaction: I was completely disappointed! It seemed confusing, slow moving, and lacked the biting cynicism that I had associated with Lang’s films of this era. I mentally filed it along with the other sleep-inducing Freudian excursion from a master: Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
In a way I was glad you suggested we watch it because I had always wondered if my initial impression was a case of out-sized expectations. My taste has evolved over the years and I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the movies that are far from masterpieces for all sorts of peculiar reasons.
S: I can meet a movie on its own terms, but this one presents itself as an A quality film, even though its foundations are so shaky. When I first saw this, I was pretty naive. Now I wonder why Celia put up with her husband's strange behavior? Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave did not have great chemistry, so assuming the attachment stems from the bedroom has no grounds. They hardly know each other, and yet she has fallen completely in love with him. Why? Not only did he leave her on their honeymoon for some cockeyed business reason that never materialized, he failed to carry her over the threshold into their new home together, leaving the task to his sister instead, and then failed to tell her the very important detail that he had been married before and that he had a teenage son. If those slights weren't enough, it turns out the "happy rooms" he collects are actual murder scenes imported into his home. And somehow this isn't a haunted house movie. In films like Rebecca or Gaslight, where the women know something sinister is afoot, they're trapped in the marriage because those films are set in an era when women had no rights and divorce was not an option. Not only is it an option for Celia, but she also has a great deal of money, so she is independent. And yet she stays.
This film relies heavily on psychology, but its attempts are laughable. At no point did I feel sympathy for Mark and the ludicrous explanation for his behavior only made him seem more childlike and helpless. I wonder if the book develops the ideas more logically.
A: Maybe I’ve grown more naïve! I thought Michael Redgrave’s introductory scene was romantic. I got why she was so attracted to him. He overpowers her with his admiration. “Most people are asleep,” he says. He can tell that she is different from most people. He had just witnessed her fascination at the primal scene of two Mexican peasants fighting over a woman.
The psychology of these characters runs counter to anything found in real life. It’s the unreality (or anti-reality) that made the movie fun for me. Right from that scene in Mexico, the narration creates the effect that we are in Joan Bennett’s head seeing everything from her slanted vantage point. It’s otherworldly. There are so many dreamlike elements in the movie: the grotesque masks hanging along the stairs, the woman with a scarf along her face like a crescent moon, and the surly kid just appearing in the big leather chair. The floor plan of the house made no sense—I couldn’t figure out how she got from her bedroom to that long hallway with the “happy rooms” you mentioned.
S: Fritz Lang provides atmosphere, and the music by Miklos Rozsa is wonderful, but the story kills any efforts on their part.
A: There was a lot of talent in this production. Stanley Cortez’s shadowy cinematography is also worth mentioning. Around the 1 hour 13 minutes mark I noted that the Miklos Rozsa score seemed to be playing in reverse. I found a reference online that explained that the orchestra played the score backwards and then the tape was played normally to create the odd effect.
S: But there is one factor that kept me interested throughout. (I don't know if this indicates that I'm shallow or what.) The costumes. Joan Bennett was an incredibly beautiful actress, so she was an ideal model for clothes, but when you pair her beauty with Travis Banton's clothes, you get something
unforgettable. My favorite look is when she is the most covered-up. She's wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck dress with buttons along the spine, a glittering diamond choker and matching bracelet with a double layered floor-length skirt. The top layer is split in front in a textured fabric with a sheen, topped with a belt. The bottom layer has pockets! Gorgeous and practical, and probably comfortable too! She also wears gorgeous suits and in the party scene she has a lovely white dress with a lace bolero. I love when a character is rich because they get to wear these kinds of showstopping memorable clothes.
A: She wears the clothes very well. There is one scene where her midriff is exposed and, wow, she was in great shape. I am shallow, there is no doubt.
S: I give this one 3 mellowcreme pumpkins.
A: I’m going with 3 mellowcreme pumpkins, and I was tempted to give it four!