The fourth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.
During the editing (which is when I really start to see the film), I saw that it was Hitchcock who had guided us through the writing and Lang who guided us through the shooting: especially his last films, the ones where he leads the spectator in one direction before he pushes them in another completely different direction, in a very brutal, abrupt way.—Jacques Rivette on his Secret défense (1998), fro http://www.jacques-rivette.com/
Long before the much-vaunted, high-concept ‘mind-game movies’ like Memento (2000), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or Inception (2010), there was Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door… (1947). The film is like a broken puzzle at every level, virtually begging us to rearrange its pieces and find its key. Indeed, one almost needs to formulate a ‘hypothesis of the stolen film,’ Ruiz-style, since the movie we have before us is not quite the one Lang and his talented writer Silvia Richards (Possessed, Rancho Notorious, Ruby Gentry) first envisaged, planned and constructed. That film—particularly in its opening section concerning how Celia (Joan Bennett) gets to her fated encounter with brooding architect Mark (Michael Redgrave)—was more ample and, perhaps, more explicatory of certain character motivations and plot enigmas.
But Secret Beyond the Door… is among a special group of auteur works, including Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947), also starring Bennett, which, paradoxically, benefitted from studio or producer interference. The need to compress a larger body of material ending up creating (with the director’s reluctant involvement) odd and arresting narrative shapes, dispensing with conventional, plodding backstories. Characters become more like phantoms than three-dimensional characters, driven blindly by contradictory desires, subject to sudden, malign pressures. As Tom Gunning argues in his magisterial The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (2000), the film’s mystery and fascination only grow because of its fractured form.
It is a palimpsest of genres, radically changing course in mid-stream. Michael Walker in Movie (issue 34/35, 1990) details how it superimposes the ‘persecuted wife melodrama,’ a cycle predominantly evident in 1940s cinema (from the UK and US versions of Gaslight through to Sudden Fear ), upon the ‘psychological investigation’ movie (such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound, 1945). Where the former template furnishes elements such as a hasty marriage, a secret, locked room, and various sinister hangers-on from the husband’s past, the latter plot type centres on a character who has repressed a trauma, leading to his or her stunted (sometimes perverse) psycho-sexual development—a complex that can only be sorted out via the tenacious, loving ministrations (and investigative deductions) of an intimate partner.
Secret Beyond the Door… begins as the tale of a woman attracted by the danger and darkness embodied in Mark, who absorbs into his being the entire atmosphere of dread, desire and the unknown that Celia first experiences openly in the mean streets of Mexico. Later, it becomes the tale of a man with a traumatic past that needs deciphering and unlocking. The gender focus hops with the genre, but this man and woman enter into a strange—indeed, felicitous —alignment: what she seeks and he hides interweave to form the baroque architecture of this remarkably dreamlike narrative.
But the end result amounts to much more than the formula once drolly proposed, for 1940s cinema, by Marc Vernet: that while Freud is called upon to supply the ‘special effects’ of the narrative, its tidy, normative resolution is guaranteed by the overarching mise en scène of American attitudes and ideology. For, in a Lang film, no felicitous architecture hangs together forever: the fragile conditions that create it can just as easily suspend it, and that goes as much for relationships as for individual, neurotic complexes or familial dwelling-spaces.
Our title comes from the linguistic philosopher J.L. Austin, who posited the ‘felicity conditions’ necessary for particular statements (declarations, requests or warnings) to ‘work’ and be accepted (or rejected) as true or false in given contexts or circumstances. More recently, the term has been revived by Bruno Latour, who makes it a cornerstone of his ongoing ‘inquiry into modes of existence’ (see, for an introduction, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/328). Our architect Mark clearly agrees with these eminent philosophers: as he explains, his ‘felicitous rooms’ that recreate murder scenes (but spookily depopulated ones) have nothing to do with happiness, but only with what is apt, fitting…and symmetrical. It is in the concentration on these uncanny spaces that Lang here turns narrative itself inside out: again as in Raúl Ruiz’s Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978), story gives way to a veritable gallery stroll through installation artworks.
There are so many doors through which to enter this film—and so many ways to reconfigure it. Through the soundtrack, for instance: from Miklós Rózsa’s mesmeric score and the always subtly controlled vocal delivery of dialogue, to the precisely isolated sound effects (a stone plops in water, birds flutter across a courtyard) and the strongly poetic, incantatory voice-over (‘Why did he lie? Why did he go?’), Lang was an early master of what we today call sound design. Or through the dense, multivalent network of motifs: doors, keys, locks, flowers…and water, master sign here of all that is non-rational, associated with legends, popular beliefs, obsessions, oceanic feeling. Or the elaborate structure of repetitions and symmetries: re-enactment of trauma; identically copied rooms; Celia going up and down the staircase; the candle arrangement; and the two screams, reminiscent of Slavoj Zizek’s assertion in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) that ‘we have a perfect name for fantasy realised,’ which is precisely ‘nightmare.’
We (like many other devoted fans) could write a book about these paths through Secret Beyond the Door…—but Lang’s cinema also invites a less abstract, less cerebral response, mixing interpretation with playful free (re)association of its rich store of elements. Our audiovisual essay takes up this invitation.