#199. The Secret Beyond the Door (1948)

Even though Fritz Land had been making films in the United States for a few years at this point, after an entreaty from Josef Goebbles sent him running from Germany without even packing a bag, The Secret Beyond the Door (which I keep referring to, mistakenly, as Beyond the Secret Door) is the first of his movies to appear on the List since 1931’s M., which I can now look back on and identify as film noir even though it felt, at the time, like Lang was kinda blundering backward, straying from the visual style that was so riveting in his silent-era work with Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis.

Secret Beyond the Door, a kind of gothic noir that either steals from or pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s films up to this point, is also the first Lang film on the List that isn’t met with universal praise. It’s a good movie, if a little bit messy, but even twenty-four hours after seeing it I feel like it’s gone from my head. 

Secret Beyond the Door… (1948) Directed by Fritz Lang Shown: Michael Redgrave, Joan Bennett

There’s something messy about how he’s mixing up his themes, some of which are germane to noir — sex and nihilism — but then there’s all this other stuff about sex and gender and psychotherapy, paternity and maternity, suspicion.

Story revolves around a woman named Celia (Joan Bennett) who meets and falls in love — to my boundless confusion — with a stiff, colorless, self-absorbed douchebag misogynist cracker named Mark (Michael Redgrave). Falls for him after finding herself all hot and bothered by these two dudes at an outdoor cafe who launch into a knife fight over who could claim a woman they’d met only an hour earlier. Celia notes, and apparently relates to, the look of satisfaction on that woman’s face when she sees two men fighting to the death over her — and, accordingly, Celia goes and sits herself in the lap of a hideously uninteresting man.

Professor Dickface courts her for a little while and then they marry, impulsively, and move back to the sprawling estate where he lives with — surprise! — his teenage son from a previous marriage, with whom he quarrels constantly. He also lives with two female assistants — one of whom, scarred and stoic and ultimately manifesting a bit of pyromania, is an obvious callback to the madam’s cryptic servant in Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, shrouded in mystery and blatantly up to something. Also, even though the motif of parallel lines running vertically or horizontally across the screen has been a lang theme since at least 1922, here it seems (especially with all the talk about psychotherapy) like a ripoff of (tribute to?) Hitchcock’s Spellbound — in which Gregory Peck plays a psychiatrist who’s, uh, spellbound whenever he sees a streak of parallel lines. They trigger some deep, suppressed memory of a boyhood trauma.

A similar if more banal boyhood trauma turns out to be the (shoddy) key to the mystery beyond the secret door — which proves clever, in a way, but might also be dumb. I can’t decide. But I also wanna give Lang enough credit as a craftsman to say that this might warrant another couple viewings before I let myself reach a verdict.

This question came to mind not too long ago when I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return. It makes for a divine eighteen hours of TV, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There are so many story threads that converge, or look like they’re about to converge, and when, finally, not everything coheres into a neat package I did start to wonder if maybe that juggling of so many characters, that weaving of so many storylines, was actually a work of genius or a good way to give the impression of genius.

Or was it just a very fun and thought-provoking eighteen hours?

When it comes to Twin Peaks: The Return I actually have no real doubt, weeks after seeing it, that the third season is — by my standards at least —  amasterpiece. Beautiful, disturbing, smart.

Here, with Lang’s 1948 noir, I think it’s a bit of a mess, as I’ve said, but there are traces of the genius filmmaker we saw between Mabuse and M., but there’s also something…fussy. It seems unlikely that an esteemed professional filmmaker like Lang, hailed as a genius by so many, would look toward the work of someone like Hitchcock, a more popular filmmaker, and emulate that work with the intention of flattery. There might be an element here of Lang taking somebody else’s material to show that he can play it better.

I also loathe Michael Redgrave. Not in the way one naturally loathes a villain.

Something about his face and haircut. So punchable.

So ahdunno — I’m not a fan of this movie but, within the context of its decade and the biography of its director, it’s provoked lotsa thought and I wouldn’t mind coming back to it at some point.

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