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Secret Beyond the Door

(Fritz Lang, USA, 1948)


 


Fritz Lang fans often divide on whether they prefer the certified highbrow classics like M (1931), Metropolis (1926) and The Big Heat (1953), or the stranger, more cryptic and perverse films in his oeuvre that plumb less reputable areas of pop culture, like Rancho Notorious (1952) and Moonfleet (1955).

Secret Beyond the Door scrapes by in some accounts as a respectable film noir, but it is the beguiling mixture of many genres – women's melodrama, Freudian case study, serial killer mystery and allegory of the artistic/creative process – that makes it such a special and haunting oddity in the director's career.

The film partakes of Hollywood's Female Gothic cycle, exploring the fraught attachment of a woman (here, Joan Bennett) to a man (Michael Redgrave) who is all at once enigmatic, seductive and (as the plot unravels) potentially life-threatening. As in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), which inspired Lang, the heroine enters a home of strangers, brimming with past, unspoken traumas and sick, subterranean relationships.

Lang fixes the frankly sado-masochistic ambiguities of this plot (What is the true nature of the male beast, sensitivity or aggression? What does the woman really want from him, anyway, love or death?) into a startlingly novel context: Redgrave is a tormented-genius architect who has built a house of "felicitous rooms", each the reconstructed scene of a grisly, patently psychosexual murder.

Secret Beyond the Door joins a special group of '40s films, including Renoir's The Woman on the Beach (1947) and the Val Lewton production The Seventh Victim (1943), whose potent, dreamlike aura is virtually guaranteed by their B-movie sparseness and free-association plotting – as well as, here, a voice-over narration that disorientatingly shifts from Bennett to Redgrave and back again.

Heretical it may be for a card-carrying auteurist to suggest, but the cuts imposed by Universal on Lang's initial edit probably enhanced this oneiric quality. The end result may be short on rational links and explanations, but this is one of the precious occasions when Lang – aided immeasurably by Stanley Cortez's baroque cinematography and Miklós Rózsa's lush score – managed to add a richly poetic dimension to his familiar fatalism.

MORE Lang: Cloak and Dagger

© Adrian Martin April 2003


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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