#35 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Man Hunt was a pretty obvious effort to mimic Alfred Hitchcock‘s adventure thrillers to some modest effect. Secret Beyond the Door is an obvious attempt to imitate Alfred Hitchcock’s gothic romance Rebecca to much less effect. Uneven with sparks of genuine interest, it effectively descends into complete parody in its finale, feeling more at home in Mel Brooks‘ High Anxiety than an earnest attempt to replicate the Hitchcock touch.
Celia (Joan Bennett) is an independently wealthy woman who inherits her small fortune after the death of her brother. With the potential for a safe marriage to one of her brother’s friends, Bob (James Seay), she takes a quick vacation to Mexico where she meets the mysterious and British Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), immediately falling in love with him and deciding to marry him after only three days together even though she learns little to nothing about him beyond the surface of his profession as an architect and owner of an architecture magazine. It’s a whirlwind romance that quickly culminates in a marriage and Celia moving into Mark’s New York estate, akin to Manderley in Rebecca. There, she finds a weird and insular culture of a handful of people including Mark’s sister Caroline (Anne Revere) and his secretary Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neil), who hides a burn scar on her face with a shawl. In addition, she learns that Mark has a son, David (Mark Dennis), from a previous marriage that ended in tragedy when the previous wife died.
So…the Rebecca influence is obvious from the moment she gets in that house, probably before. Where this film moves in a different direction is my favorite part of the movie. At the housewarming to welcome the new Mrs. Lamphere, all of the guests are ushered inside during some rain to discover Mark’s hobby. He collects rooms (“felicitous rooms” he calls them) where murders took place and adds them to his house. Taking as much of the original structure and contents as possible, he has a room from 16th century Paris where a French nobleman strangled his wife when he discovered she was a Huguenot, and five others that he shows them. There is a seventh room, though, that is under lock and key.
All of this somehow ties to a wildly underdeveloped idea of Mark’s where he talks about how rooms are destined to be good or bad based on their construction. It goes nowhere but gets mentioned a surprising number of times. However, that doesn’t undermine the weird and surrealistic feeling of a rich man running through all of his money to collect rooms where murders took place. If there is one part of the original novel by Rufus King that drew Fritz Lang to the project, I’d take a wild guess and say it was this.
And the movie keeps going on a path that I was into, while dealing with some subplots that I feel are cluttered and was wondering if they existed just to operate as red herrings. However, this is also where the film embraces a certain visual surrealism, heavily embracing fog and a large outdoor set that leans into the gothic romance aesthetic more fully than anywhere else in the film. I was prepared for the film to become something more lurid and dreamlike for the rest of its running time, but it doesn’t. Instead, it becomes a few things in quick succession. The focus moves from Celia to Mark, and we get a repeat of the climactic trial scene in M, except instead of Peter Lorre giving the performance of his life, we have Michael Redgrave being primly and properly British in what is supposed to be a soul-baring moment. It falls flat on its own, but especially in comparison.
One thing that bugged me from time to time with Hitchcock’s films was the easy use of Freudian analysis to explain away and, in particular, fix character problems. This was most apparent in Spellbound and Marnie, though you can see the explanation side of things without fix in Psycho. It’s always felt like a cornerstone in potential mockery of Hitchcock’s work, and when I figured out that Lang was making something in response to Hitchcock, I didn’t expect Lang to simply fall into Hitchcock’s worst impulses when it comes to this sort of thing. But he did. There’s a moment late where Mark goes from dangerous to completely placid the second a repressed memory returns to the surface. It’s almost comical in its timing. It doesn’t work dramatically because the sudden resurfacing of a repressed memory is too internal to the character, and it also doesn’t work because of Redgrave’s performance. Gregory Peck, for all my issues with Spellbound, did it better.
The final moments of the climax are all kinds of hokey melodrama that wouldn’t bother me if all dramatic tension and interest that the movie was barely holding together through its strong visuals combined with unfocused storytelling hadn’t been completely let out of the picture, turning what could have been an over-earnest ending into something feeling like parody.
I was with the film for a long stretch. It wasn’t full-fledged adoration or anything. It was a more reserved, wait and see approach with optimism sprinkled throughout. Joan Bennett does her job well. Redgrave doesn’t work in his key moments, but he’s fine otherwise. The supporting cast is admirable. But that ending stripped the good feeling away completely, and I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I can appreciate the visuals and some of the ideas that pop up here and there, but they’re trapped in a film that doesn’t know what to do with them.