Was there more to Secret Beyond the Door for Fritz Lang than mere Hitchcock envy? Film historians have long dismissed this 1948 picture, as Lang himself did later in life. The film was a flop and sealed the end of Diana Films, his promising and financially rewarding alliance with star Joan Bennett and her producer-husband, Walter Wanger. Lang also admitted (rather atypically) that he wanted to outdo Hitchcock and Rebecca; he also intended to give the director a run for his money on the psychoanalysis bandwagon.
Lang developed this film at the top of his American film career, in complete freedom, securing a $100,000 salary for himself. He was in love (with his screenwriter Silvia Richards) and self-assured; he was doing the story he wanted, even though his partners (including Richards) were tepid on the project. Sour grapes and blame came only after the fact. In a wonderful way, the best moments of the film are its central couple’s sunny beginnings in Mexico. Celia (Bennett) is a rich widow about to marry for convenience, when she meets Mark (Michael Redgrave), an architect who rouses violent feelings in her. The seduction scene is marvelous, all told in flashback and dreamy voice-over. Ironically, this is possibly the best description of Bennett’s curiously atmospheric charm (a piquant and sexual creature hiding behind a decidedly haute-bourgeois exterior and poise), except that by this time Lang only saw in her an irritating star-partner. Whereas in 1940 he had been clearly enchanted by her (in Manhunt, he pierces her beret with a phallic silver arrow), and doted over her with maniacal, fetishistic care in Scarlet Street (1945), by 1947 he blamed everything on her. Still, what is left of the Mexican prologue is enchanting, wacky as it is. Remarkably, these sequences were greatly altered by Universal, after Diana’s relationship with the studio was put into jeopardy by Lang’s intransigence and extravagance (by the end of shooting he was 14 days over schedule). Such tamperings by studio executives sometimes yield interesting results, and this is the case here.
The picture’s best scenes are set on a patio where the honeymooners lie languorously in a hammock. The lovers’ banter is fun and catching, clearly “felicitous.” “This patio was made for love,” Celia says, and this is when the architect tells her about his pet theory: Rooms and their fixtures can influence the mood and passions of those who inhabit them. And what could be more Langian, this determinist notion that walls can make any man commit murder? In spite of his own disclaimers, this is one of Lang’s most personal pictures. (UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater; Sat., April 4, 7:30 p.m. www.cinema.ucla.edu.)