Secret Beyond the Door
Posted by Hedwig on February 20, 2011
This post is for theFilm Noir Blogathon, details of which can be found here. Please consider donating to the Film Noir Foundation for the preservation of The Sound of Fury, and do hop over to the first link: there are so, so many great posts already, I almost hesitate to add my meager offering.
I first intended to write a post about Fritz Lang and gender relations, focusing especially on violence against women, but the subject proved to wide-ranging and diffuse. More specifically, I kept circling back to THE SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, a Bluebeard kind of tale Lang made in 1947, starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave. Warning: spoilers herein.
Any Bluebeard tale needs to deal with a few questions: why does the woman/girl marry Bluebeard? Why doesn’t she run away once she discovers the ‘secret beyond the door’? And, not unimportantly, what is Bluebeard’s deal? Why does he kill his wives?
The first wrinkle the movie presents us with is in the character of Celia. Her introductory voice-over (all about dreams and daffodils and fear of marriage) makes her seem like the stereotypical innocent, but the flashback we dive into reveals otherwise: Celia is reluctant to settle, and while she agrees to marry her brother’s dull & reliable friend, he thinks it wise to send her to Mexico to sow her wild oats.
She there, of course, meets another man – not a big surprise, considering the movie opens with their marriage. But it’s worth noting just how she catches his attention: by being enthralled by a knife fight between two men over a woman. Her friend is horrified, but Celia is powerfully drawn to this mix of violence and sex (incidentally, this is the same mixture that often draws us to noir). She barely even flinches when she’d almost hit by a thrown knife.
Hint: if you get picked up by a guy because he sees you love the mixture of violence and sex, marrying him might not be the smartest move.
Still, for all this heavy foreboding, Mark Lamphere seems fairly normal, even bland, though a tad sexist: there’s a fascinating conversation between the newlyweds about gender difference. Mark posits that men (or “human beings”, which is in his quote opposed to “women” and “children”) are rational, whereas women are intuitive. Celia makes a face. He defends himself, by saying that women can intuitively jump to a conclusion it might take a rational man days of rational reasoning (and so on) to get to. Celia, promptly and justifiably, pushes him off the hammock they’re laying on.
Mark also turns out to be prone to sudden mood swings, which soon interrupt the idyllic honeymoon. And then we come to his fort, where Celia not only finds his domineering sister, but also a son (with attendant Mrs. Danvers-like tutor) and the specter of a dead first wife – Rebecca, anyone? Creepier and creepier, it turns out during the housewarming party that the “felicitous” rooms her new husband told her he collected are all rooms where gruesome murders took place. Furthermore, while the movie doesn’t immediately point it out, they’re all murders of women. And there’s one room to which the door is ominously closed.
Ok, frankly, the concept of a “room collection”, even for an architect, is patently ridiculous. Still, the scene is powerful – and funny, as it’s commented on by a (female) psychology students, who proclaims that none of these murders would have taken place if only the murderers had sat down with a therapist. After all, who hates women except the repressed?
Of course, Celia just HAS to see what’s in that room – for her husband’s good, of course. She uses some wax to copy the key (in a really tense scene – Lang is an amazing director, and knows how to direct a thrilling sequence), and whaddaya know: it’s her bedroom. At first, this makes her suspect that Mark killed his first wife. But then *drumroll* she notices… that the candles are asymmetric. He means to kill her!
It looks, at first, as if she’s going to do the smart thing and run. And we get a nice little fake out: she sees a figure in the distance, she screams, there’s a fade to black and then we open back at the house, at a conspicuously Celia-less breakfast. We even get a courtroom scene, in which Mark attempts to protect himself, though the lack of features in the room clues us in to its non-existence.
But no! The dark, menacing figure was just her old fiancé, and somehow, this convinced Celia that she has to give her husband another chance. More specifically, SHE STILL THINKS HE WANTS TO KILL HER (I usually use italics for emphasis, but this warrants all caps), but she thinks there are, like, deep, repressed reasons for that, and she wants to get to the bottom of the matter. In other words: she doesn’t just try to stall, but she tries to talk him out of his murderous rage.
It turns out that Mark is angry because he thought his beloved mother once locked him in his room – but as Celia coincidentally knows, it was actually his sister. As if it’s not hard enough to swallow that a lifetime of misogyny (and even murderous rage at women) could be caused by a childhood prank, this clarification alone is enough to jolt Mark out of his trance, just in time to save his beloved wife from the fire lighted by the nanny (told you she was like Mrs. Danvers). And all was well.
I mock, but I really loved this film, despite its ludicrous elements, I love Joan Bennett in it (I’d like to take her character out for a drink), and I think it’s fascinating to think about. I don’t know how much Lang had to do with the plot or even theme, but violence against women is a recurring theme in his movies. In CLASH BY NIGHT, Marylin Monroe has a conversation with her beau about whether men have a right to smack their girlfriends around. In SCARLET STREET, Edward G. Robinson is henpecked by his wife, and eventually takes out all his bottled rage on Joan Bennett – though in that movie, she kinda deserves it.
The other big movie in this respect is THE BIG HEAT, in which the murder of a woman is a prime motivator for the hero, and violence perpetrated against another woman (Gloria Grahame) turns her into an instrument of revenge. In fact, in that movie, it can be said that Gloria Grahame’s character is a manifestation of Glenn Ford’s id, his violent inner safe made flesh, allowing the law-abiding cop to keep his hands clean, perhaps in illustration of Mark Lamphere’s thesis that men are ratio and women are instinct.
Of course, drawing these kinds of links is tricky. In Lang’s first two American Noirs, FURY (an alternate version of the story of THE SOUND OF FURY, the movie to be preserved) and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, the women (both played by Sylvia Sidney) are faithful and supportive, even functioning as consciences, while in a later film, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, the murder of showgirls might be the subject, but the only truly heroic character is played by Joan Fontaine.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re a tenacious person, and I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you without a clear conclusion, or well, point. Fact is: Lang is most famous for M and Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse, but his American work (of which I’ve seen only 8 out of 22) is worth exploring too, and he made a valuable contribution to film noir. THE BIG HEAT is the best one I’ve seen so far, but THE SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR shows his craftsmanship, is a fascinating variation on the “is my husband trying to kill me”-theme (see also: SUSPICION, GASLIGHT, even REBECCA)… and is a lot of fun, to boot.
Oh, and if you’d like to get me a birthday present? A donation to the Film Noir Foundation would be a great one!