September 14, 2010
Before I start this week’s blather, I wanted to acknowledge the passing of the great Claude Chabrol at the age of 80. Dave Kehr’s NY Times obituary is here, the AP’s is here, and David Hudson has an exhaustive collection of links at MUBI. His filmography is massive (near 70 titles), and I’ve barely made a dent, but from what I’ve seen his impish deconstruction of bourgeois morality is a joy to watch. I saw La Ceremonie for the first time this year (Jonathan Rosenbaum re-posted his review of the film today), and its perfectly controlled, distanced cinematography masks a wholly degraded moral universe. He unveils hypocrisy with every cut, making films you peer underneath with trepidation. And through it all he’s a supremely funny guy – just check out his bumptiously perverse turn in Sam Fuller’s Thieves After Dark. Now it’s time to watch more…
Next Monday, September 20th, TCM is airing a 24-hour marathon of restorations performed by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. I’d recommend the entire block, from The Exiles through Killer of Sheep, but today I’m focusing on Fritz Lang’s 1948 curiosity Secret Beyond the Door. An unmitigated disaster at the box office, it led to the dissolution of his production company (Diana Productions), which he had established with Joan Bennett and Walter Wanger. Their short-lived success on Scarlet Street ended in back-biting and recriminations after Secret tanked. And yet it is one of Lang’s most beautiful films, shot by Stanley Cortez in sharply angled shadows.
Lang was against hiring Cortez, as Patrick McGilligan writes in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. He wanted to work with Milton Krasner again, who shot Scarlet Street, but the scriptwriting process dragged on, and Krasner took another job. Cortez was under contract to Wanger, and having already shot the atmospheric interiors of The Magnificent Ambersons, seemed to be an inspired choice for this very architectural film. But Lang clashed with him immediately, as Welles did on Ambersons, complaining about his slowness in setting up shots. Regardless of their personal relationship, the results on-screen are mesmerizing. It is a film of shadows in corridors, with Joan Bennett etched into narrow enclosures, endlessly searching for masked entrances and exits. The film is made up of these portals, which open into Bennett’s psyche (displayed in repeated shots of mirrors) and her neurotic husband Mark’s (symbolized by a locked door).
As Tom Gunning details in his essential study, The Films of Fritz Lang, Secret arrived in the middle of a series of Gothic women’s dramas kicked off by Hitchock’s Rebecca (1940). The introduction of Freudian elements was also common. Gunning: “Using Freudian themes as new plot enigmas and as an excuse for dream sequences with Expressionistic or surrealistic visual elements were aspects the popular women’s film and the new art house fare shared in such films as John Brahms’ The Locket of 1946, the British The Seventh Veil of 1947; or most influential of all, Hitchcock’s 1943 Spellbound. Secret is firmly in this tradition.”
The script by Sylvia Richards (adapted from a serial in Redbook by Rufus T. King) tells the dream-like tale of Celia(Joan Bennett), who falls in love with the quixotic architect Mark Lamphere. They quickly marry after an intense flirtation in Mexico, and Celia soon discovers that Mark was previously hitched, and has an erudite, distant son named David. David accuses Mark of killing his mother, and Celia soon suspects that she could be next.
It is heavily influenced by Rebecca and Spellbound, and fails to match those films on a narrative level. The motivations of the supporting characters in Mark’s imposing household are never clearly mapped out, and the psychoanalytical interrogation of Mark is reduced to, as Gunning says, “simply a matter of clearing up false impressions.” Reveal the repressed memory, and Mark will be healed. This is pop-psychoanalysis, but if one is able to separate the images from the overwrought plot mechanics, it is hypnotic, troubling work. The visuals tell the story of Bennett gaining control over her own consciousness, as Gunning convincingly argues. This is traced to the use of voice-over, one of the major bones of contention in post-production work on the film.
Lang originally recorded Bennett’s voice-over with a different actress, intending to convey the idea that one’s unconscious is a completely different person. As relationships broke down after shooting ended, Wanger and Bennett (who were married at the time), decided to re-record the track with Bennett’s voice, making Lang’s film more conventional (this idea of representing a woman with two different actresses was later pulled off brilliantly in Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).
In any case, the voice-over is used repeatedly in the first 3/4 of the film, with Bennett intensely questioning Mark’s true feelings, as well as her own. It is a tentative, insecure and deeply neurotic voice. The disconnect she feels is visualized by Cortez and Lang through a series of shots in which Mark’s back is turned during conversations. It is his gestural defense against the intrusion that Celia’s love continually presents, a bulwark against female intrusion.
Her self-doubting voice-over stops, however, when she finally breaks into Room No. 7, the locked door Mark would not allow anyone to enter (entering the Bluebeard fable as another major influence). Mark is a collector of “felicitous rooms”, in which he reconstructs the boudoirs of murders, using as many original elements as possible. He believes that there is something about the structure of these rooms, and their things, that pre-determined the murders, in all of which men kill women. For Mark, architecture is a bloody destiny, an attitude Lang is clearly sympathetic to (i.e., his obsessive mapping of imprisoning city blocks in M). Celia is initially attracted to this death-drive of his, as they first meet watching a bloody duel and exchange erotic gazes. That their dual psychological issues could be solved like a whodunit is silly, but the power of the images often transcends the flimsiness of the material. As Gunning wrote, “One might describe Secret Beyond the Door as the ruin of a great film, or the ruin of a great filmmaker. Through its collapse, structures are revealed that are more astonishing than the more structurally sound edifices of lesser filmmakers.”