During film noir’s post-World War II heyday, psychoanalysis was in the air. “Who’s your analyst?” became a catch phrase in the New York art and theater world. As a member of the Actor’s Studio, Marilyn Monroe underwent analysis as part of her sense memory training. Psychiatry, as depicted in The Snake Pit (1948) was also employed to control “deviant” behavior with methods including electroshock. In her essay “Couching Resistance: Women, Film, and Postwar Psychoanalytic Psychiatry,” Janet Walker identifies the postwar period through the mid 1960s as “the social historical crux of the relationship between women and psychiatry” and argues that “psychoanalytic and psychiatric practices served as agencies of women’s adjustment to stereotypically conceived roles.” To illustrate, she reproduces an ad from a medical journal for Methedrine® directed at doctors of “the patient who won’t ‘fit in’ ”
Secret Beyond the Door (1947) was the most psychologically complex of the collaborations between Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang. Bennett’s character, Celia Lamphere, reveals her innermost fears and desires through voice-over narration. As shooting began, Lang wrote to colleague Lotte Eisner: “I am experimenting with using superimposed sound for the ‘thought voices’ of the leading characters, and I find the idea intriguing to work out.” Lang initially had the idea of using another actress for the thought voice, “but in the end Joan Bennett insisted on doing it herself.”
Though charming, Celia’s architect husband Mark (Michael Redgrave) proves distant. To Celia’s dismay, he already lives with two strong women, sister/surrogate mother Caroline (Anne Revere) and Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neil), governess to his son David (Mark Dennis). Beyond the door of Lamphere House lies what Andrew Dickos calls “a murderous indulgence, a collection of ‘murder’ rooms–rooms meticulously furnished as they were when they served as settings for infamous murders.” Mark acts as docent to affluent party guests including an attractive blonde (Anabel Shaw) who makes the case for psychoanalysis. When Celia confronts him about the rooms, he replies that “murder comes from a strong emotion more direct even than love.” You won’t find that on a fortune cookie.
There’s a seventh room that’s off limits to all, including Celia. Whether responsible or not, Mark blames himself for his first wife’s death (there’s always a dead first wife in these gothic thrillers) and later puts himself on trial in a dream sequence, a riveting scene that’s been cut from some versions of the film. Diana Fuss in Inside/Out: Lesbian theories, gay theories refers to it as a “paranoid woman’s film,” where “a door, a staircase, a mirror are never simply what they appear to be.” “The title”, she writes, “sums up the enigma of many of these films, in which a question about the husband’s motives becomes an investigation of the house (and of the secret of a woman who previously inhabited it).”
Silvia Richards adapted the screenplay from a story by Rufus King. Richards co-wrote the screenplay for Possessed, released the same year. Possessed, directed by Curtis Bernhardt with Joan Crawford and Van Heflin, explores many of the same dark themes, mental illness and murder, as Secret Beyond the Door. Richards would have been the best possible candidate to expound on the mystery, but like most of noir’s first generation, she’s no longer with us.
The Trap of Gorgeous Surfaces
Britta Sjogren [profiled in Noir City Annual #2] has provided a detailed analysis in her book Into the Vortex: Female Voice and Paradox in Film. A spin-off film program curated by Sjogren and Kathy Geritz at the Pacific Film Archive was as an “unabashed feminist love letter” to classic noir melodramas, looking past the “trap of gorgeous surfaces,” to the female character’s psychological insides as expressed through the voice.
She compares Secret Beyond the Door’s narrative structure to the mise-en-abîme (placing into infinity) of a pair of refracting mirrors and sees a competition for control of the voice-off, i.e., the narrative voice when a character speaks from just outside the frame. As the film begins, Celia regresses, as in psychoanalysis, into idyllic childhood memories, lulled by the soothing violins of Miklós Rózsa’s score. Then ominously, she says, “When you drown, your whole life passes before you like a fast movie.” Midway, Mark’s voice takes over. Earlier, he complained that “all my life I’ve been controlled by women,” first his mother and sister, then Miss Robey and now Celia. Sjogren also finds significant the historical moment of the immediate post war. When Mark takes control of the voice-off, he is enacting symbolically the servicemen returning to the home front and displacing women from offices and factories. Were these men, some emotionally damaged, necessarily the most competent to lead? E. Ann Kaplan in Psychoanalysis and Cinema links Secret Beyond the Door with The Locket (1946) and concludes: “The increased level of women’s threat to returning veterans began to stimulate a deeper kind of reaction for which Freud’s theories became a convenient conduit.” But, does any of this help to answer “What is the secret beyond the door?”
Celia thinks that she’s choosing love by marrying Mark. She breaks off her engagement with Bob (James Seay), her safe and sane lawyer, who she cares for but not in a “gypsy passion” way. Mark’s position in the family business gives him an air of distinction and sophistication. If Mark and Bob were to exchange bank accounts, would Bob become the exciting one? It’s about more than dollars and cents since socialite Celia has her own money. When Bob does some detective work and discovers that the aristocratic Lampheres are in debt, Mark’s charismatic power never loses its grip on her.
The Mystery of Lilacs
Secret Beyond the Door is a visual delight throughout. Wearing costumes by Travis Banton (Scarlet Street) with style, Bennett looks stunning in every scene that she’s in. We’re reminded why people went to the movies every night. Still, Matthew Bernstein writes that “Lang struggled to produce Secret Beyond the Door.” A number of other psychologically based dramas such as the Alfred Hitchcock directed Spellbound (1945) were successful so it was presumably something else (inadequate promotion, perhaps) that caused it to fail at the box office. Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, noted Secret Beyond the Door’s debt to Rebecca (1940) with its “Gothic themes of madness mixed with Freudian psychoanalysis . . . (and) Expressionist shadowscapes . . . ” Bernstein finds it “formally incoherent,” while Andrew Dickos recognizes the voice-off as “the most extensive . . . used for self-rumination in noir cinema . . . Lang fuses this voice-over narration with a dream motif in which even the realism of the Lamphere mansion, photographed by Stanley Cortez in a turgid, low-key chiaroscuro style, achieves an otherworldly quality.” By the climax, Celia has reclaimed the narrative point of view, taking on the role of psychoanalyst while she pieces together the mystery of lilacs, murder and room number seven.
First published in Noir City