Bluebeard in Black and White: Fritz Lang’s “Secret Beyond the Door”

fritz lang's secret beyond the door

This is my contribution to the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by the always-fascinating Movies Silently.

Check out more of the posts there!

Let me start this post about Secret Beyond the Door by blaming the enchanting Angela Carter. Carter (1940 – 1992) wrote some of my favorite books, including The Bloody Chamber (1979), which is a collection of feminist (and often erotic) revisions of fairy tales. If you’re familiar with Bluebeard, you’ve probably figured out that the title of that book is also the title of a story that revisits the Bluebeard fairy tale.

Carter is an amazing writer; she (re)wrote a lot of fairy tales as well as writing about how they work and why they’re important. You might have heard of her story “The Company of Wolves,” a version of Little Red Riding Hood from the same collection, made into a peculiar and magical film by Neil Jordan (1984), or her novel The Magic Toyshop, turned into the equally unsettling film by David Wheatley (1987). I think Carter’s may have been my introduction to the Bluebeard story, which is doubtless why it’s one of my favorite fairy tales.

As with so many fairy tales, it’s not a great template if you’re a lady: The Bluebeard figure, an older, often ugly or darkly handsome, wealthy, and mysterious fellow, courts and marries a beautiful young woman and spirits her off to his desolate castle, country house, log cabin, or what-have-you. At first the new wife is dazzled by the jewels, the dresses, the fancy parties (or she is miserably isolated, depending on the version). Soon, the husband has to leave for business. He entrusts his wife with all the keys to the house except one. Never, ever open the door to this one room, he says.

Well, obviously, that’s the only door she is interested in opening. She contrives a way to get into the room and discovers the dismembered corpses of Bluebeard’s many and sundry previous wives (suggesting a tiresomely predictable terror of women who seek knowledge). When the husband returns and (somehow instantly) realizes the betrayal, he murders her. Or, in some versions, the wife’s brothers come galloping to her rescue. The punishment of the woman is typical, as is the Victorian-ish addition of male rescuers. Meh.

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If you’ve read any books like, say, Jane Eyre, or seen a movie from the 1940s, like, say, Gaslight (1940), this plot will probably sound pretty familiar. According to scholar Maria Tatar, another wonderful author who writes an awful lot about fairy tales and folklore, Hollywood in the 1940s was rife with Bluebeard stories, and for good reason. Women were marrying strangers—beaus who had returned from the war not quite the same as when they left—and married women were discovering that the man they’d married, recently home from the war, had become a stranger. Part of the strangeness was this new undercurrent of violence—in the men’s dreams or nightmares, stories they told or wouldn’t tell their families about their war-time experiences, and sometimes that violence that spilled over into the family.

Now that we’ve got that out of way, let’s also take a moment to blame Fritz Lang. It’s been sort of a Lang-y month around here. I recently wrote about his 1944 film “Ministry of Fear,” I went and saw “Hangmen Also Die!” (1944) at the Skirball Cultural Center (which is hosting a noir exhibit focusing on its many émigré artists—if you’re in the LA area, go, go, go!), and now “Secret Beyond the Door” (1947), Lang’s version of the Bluebeard tale, or his “wife-in-distress film,” or “paranoid’s woman’s film,” depending on which critic you read. Lang is a master of mood and lighting (assisted by some fantastic cinematographers), and for me, this is what carries “Secret.” It doesn’t hurt that it stars Joan Bennett (a sometime Lang favorite) and Michael Redgrave, but the plot is so goofily Freudian that if Bennett and Redgrave weren’t adrift in Lang’s parallel universe, the film probably wouldn’t work.

joan bennet in fritz langIf you’re willing to accept the film as a kind of nightmarish Freudian fairy tale, it’s quite something. The opening sets the mood: an animated pond with submerged flowers (created by Disney specially for the film) and Celia (Bennett) speaking in a dreamy, hazy way about her wedding, as though it’s a memory. In fact, she is approaching the altar, about to marry Mark (Redgrave). As if waking from a dream, Celia’s voice-over worries, “I’m marrying a stranger.” Like all therapy sessions, the story begins in the past.

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What could go wrong?

The trouble starts on the honeymoon when, as a joke, Celia locks Mark out of her room. Thus begin the lying, the silences, Mark’s locking himself up away from his new bride. All she really knows about Mark is that he’s an architect, and he “collects” rooms, “felicitous rooms for felicitous people,” he says. He theorizes that the way spaces are built can determine what happens in them. Celia quite sensibly tells him he’s touched in the head. When they return to Mark’s isolated manor in the States, Celia realizes just how little she really knows about her husband. I won’t spoil the series of surprises that await her, but rest assured, they are Jane Eyre-sized revelations.

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Oh. That.

I will tell you that Mark’s collection of rooms (all but one) are introduced to Celia and their housewarming party guests. Each room is an exact replica (with as many of the original furnishings as possible) of a murder room, a room in which a real man murdered his wife, his mistress, or his mother. Nothing weird about that. When Celia points out that he used the word felicitous to describe the rooms, he explains that the word means “apt,” or “well-suited.” (“Look it up, darling,” he says rather snottily, but to be fair to Celia, the word can mean either apt or pleasantdelightful.) Mark’s architecture magazine is, in fact, named Apt. 

Secret Beyond the Door hits most of the Bluebeard marks: naïve young woman’s sexual awakening, marriage to a mysterious man who keeps secrets, including the room he won’t allow her to go in. The new husband is moody and unreasonable. She is isolated out in the country, and her only family, her brother, dies before she meets Mark.

25Tatar notes that Secret Beyond the Door, like many of the 1940s Bluebeard film plot lines, is actually female noir. Rather than a damaged man set irrevocably on a destructive path, helped along by a suspicious and very attractive woman, the Bluebeard pattern gives us a psychologically unstable or masochistic woman who succumbs to the initial charms of mysterious (and older) man. One of the things that’s interesting about this is that it can give the female character a lot more agency than you might expect. Celia puts up with a lot of crazy from Mark, but she is impressively strong-willed and once she decides to stick with him, she is determined to figure out what happened to him, to help him overcome his, well, frigidness. Mark becomes more and more helpless in the grip of some mysterious neurosis, and, risking her own life, it is Celia who must save him. The shift is visible in Lang’s placement of Celia and Mark relative to each other as the couple snuggles in the hammock at their hotel, first on their honeymoon at the beginning, and then when they return to the same hotel at the end of the film (see below).

As you might imagine, Lang and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, turn what might have been a warm, even cozy house into a nightmare labyrinth of claustrophobic, shadowy rooms and hallways. We often find Celia lingering in doorways and hallways, liminal spaces that emphasize her unstable status in the household and how uncertain she is about who she has really married. Many conversations between characters are abruptly interrupted by a third character and never finished, adding to the atmosphere of invisible menace.

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The family’s collection of creepy masks: Nope, nothing to worry about here.

Celia’s rising alarming is mirrored in our own sense of instability in this narrative, in which things are not as they seem. Who is the victim? Who is the villain? Who is(n’t) crazy? And what do those lilacs represent? Mark’s career as an architect also calls our attention to how spaces are used, and not just those dark hallways or murder rooms. Mexico, where Celia and Mark meet, get married, and briefly honeymoon, is a Mexico of the mind, or perhaps of the libido—an exotic otherworld in which the natives are passionate and untamed. (It’s a convenient and creaky stereotype for the picture’s symbolic system, and it could just as easily have been Spain or a country in Africa, as Lang’s version of Mexico has nothing to do with the real place or its real people.) The scenario in which Celia and Mark meet is terribly contrived, but that’s part of why it works—Celia and Mark were destined to meet. Joan Bennett is wonderful as a woman who appears trapped in a dream she can’t quite get a grip on, and Redgrave manages to be loftily aristocratic, manic, and, in rare glimpses, charmingly down-to-earth.

Don’t pay any attention to reviews that call the film “a pretty silly yarn.” It is a pretty silly yarn, but so are most fairy tales. The plausibility of the story line is beside the point. Like all fairy tales, the film’s power comes from its imagery and the pull of the strong but often submerged instincts and emotions that fairy tales have always narrated. (I also think the film works better than Spellbound in its use of psychoanalysis–everything Beyond the Door is overdetermined from the get-go. There are no half-measures with Lang.) Give yourself up to the film and enjoy the beautiful and unsettling ride.

Before.
Before.

The making of Secret Beyond the Door was nearly as fraught as Mark’s psyche, with Bennett’s marriage to producer Walter Wanger breaking up, Lang having an on-again off-again affair with the screenwriter and bullying his cast and crew. The TCM article has some juicy details.

If you’re interested in Bluebeard (or other fairy tales), check out some of the many versions, with illustrations and

After.
After.

lists of related novels and films at fairy tale compendium Sur La Lune.

In addition to the 40s films noted above, other versions of Bluebeard include magician Méliès’ Barbe-bleue (1901), Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which I wrote about here, a 1944 Edgar G. Ulmer version I can’t wait to watch (streaming via Amazon Prime), and Catherine Breillat’s 2009 Barbe blue.

More Bluebeardiana:

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Undercurrent-1946

 

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