After what must have been several months or longer, I’ve finally gotten around to watching the fourth and last disc in Arrow’s unimaginatively titled ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ Blu-ray set that I bought last year. This last film was generally regarded as the weakest of the set and I have to agree, although it does have its plus points.
Secret Behind the Door is a noir from consummate visual stylist Fritz Lang, who was no stranger to the genre and later would direct The Big Heat, the Indicator release of which a few years back blew me away and a film I would count amongst my very favourite noir. Secret Behind the Door is nowhere near as good as that later classic, but it does sport some absolutely top-notch visuals. There are a few shots that are amongst the best of any noir I’ve seen- shots that are framed in a particular way, and so consummately well-photographed with lighting and shadows in selected areas, that tell the story wholly cinematically without any need of narration or dialogue. Visually we see everything regards how characters relate to each other, body language, their positioning relative to each other within the frame, the scaling, lighting… really quite arresting stuff that is sadly let down by a script that borders on the implausible and then jumps off the cliff into the frankly bizarre.
Its perhaps some testament to Lang’s skills as a director and control of the medium that he manages to hold together the film for as long as he does. By the end of the film we’ve somehow passed from dark romantic drama to murderous noir to Roger Corman’s Poe horror territory and somewhere beyond before landing with a terrific thud back into the land of ridiculous romance. I really wasn’t sure what I’d just seen, to be honest.
Celia Lamphere (Joan Bennett) is a beautiful New York socialite who seems to have finally decided she’s spent too long carefree and single and its time she found the right man: in this case the safe choice of an old friend, Bob Dwight (James Seay), who works with her wealthy brother. Dwight is besotted by her and is eminently dependable but its clear she doesn’t love him- he’s simply a safe choice. Before she acquiesces to his advances however she goes off on one last vacation/adventure, this time to Mexico where she finds a man who strangely excites her like she’s never experienced before; tall, dark, handsome magazine owner Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). In just days they marry, but moving to his mansion home near New York she suddenly discovers that not only was Lamphere married, he also has a son and a household full of strange characters including a dominating elder sister and a fire-scarred assistant.
Possibly strangest of all however is her new husband who acts increasingly odd and unhinged, soon revealing his pastime of adding a wing of rooms to his mansion in which famous historical murders of wives by their husbands or lovers took place, a chamber of horrors if you will, but the final room, behind door number seven, remains mysteriously locked and whose contents he refuses to divulge. Something to do with his recently deceased wife, of his new wife perhaps?
Clearly this is a psychological horror dressed up in noir tropes: certainly not an unlikely combination at all and as I have noted, it visually wears its noir stylings spectacularly well. It simply drips noir in most every shot- deep shadows, surreal lighting and framing, exaggerated angles and backlighting accentuating mood and tension. Unfortunately Redgrave doesn’t convince as romantic lead or as twisted, haunted and dangerous male- not that’s he’s really helped by a nutty script that goes dafter with every page. The oddest thing about the film -and likely what saves it at all- is Joan Bennett who seems so intoxicated by the premise that we can almost accept, to our utter bafflement, that she hangs around with her new husband and his deranged family more than a day in his mansion of horrors. I suspect there is a valid reading of the film in which every character is quite insane, including Celia, especially when, at the films end after Lamphere has almost strangled Celia to death and both almost died in a fiery conflagration as the house of horrors burns around them, we finally see them enjoying a second honeymoon back in Mexico. If Celia at this point has not got bountiful reasons to cite for a swift divorce, no-one has. Its like the cinematic definition of jumping the shark, but hey, maybe wives were more forgiving back then.