Thursday, March 20, 2014

SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR: Blu-ray (Universal 1948) Olive Films

It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a truly awful movie from Hollywood’s golden age. Usually even the most mundane tripe has some redeeming value. But I have to say Secret Beyond the Door (1948) is about as misguided as movies get; un-salvageable even with Fritz Lang’s direction and the winsome Joan Bennett headlining its cast. This one’s all about a queerly manic architect/magazine editor who pursues a rich benefactress into a jokey-hokey quickie marriage in Mexico, before turning as cold as a berg toward his new bride upon their return home. The film is meant to be a psychological thriller, but badly mangles its Freudian premise almost from the start. We are introduced to a cavalcade of emotionally scarred/though nevertheless fatuous characters woven into a tapestry of utterly flawed psycho mumbo-jumbo; screenwriter Silvia Richards’ remedial comprehension of Freud embarrassingly jejune. Thank Joan Bennett for whatever marginal appeal the story has; her pouty-lipped, wide-eyed damsel in distress (who ought to have known better) managing to remain appropriately shell-shocked throughout the movie’s scant 99 minutes that seem to go on for at least twice as long, while entertaining half as much.
After a bit of voice-over foreshadowing, and some cryptic flash-forward imagery of lilies submerged in a murky pond, followed by glimpses of Joan Bennett’s edgy beauty dressed in a Spanish wedding gown, we are introduced to the ‘unhappy’ couple in the most perfunctory way; Cecilia (Joan Bennett) sent on a trip to Mexico by her benevolent, though ailing custodian, Rick Barrett (Paul Cavanagh) with a doddering chaperone, Edith Potter (Natalie Schafer).  The two girlfriends encounter a pair of vagabond Lotharios in the market square, fighting to the death for the love of a sultry señorita with dark and flashing eyes. Their conflict ignites something deep within Cecilia. What can I tell you? The thought of two sweat-soaked beggars cutting each other to shreds with rusty knives and broken bottles turns her on. We’ll chalk it up to kink. Some women have such peculiar tastes.
Also observing from the sidelines is Teutonic, Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). His penetrating gaze shifts from the fight to Cecilia, startling from her curious state of arousal.  A short while later, Cecilia is approached by Mark at one of the small cafés, Edith making scatterbrain small talk to gossipy effect, but eventually shooed away by Cecilia, who would like to know more about Mark. Flash ahead to the couple’s wedding day, then to their briefly idyllic honeymoon at a hillside hacienda. The couple’s retreat from the world is interrupted when Mark suddenly turns cold and aloof, disappearing into the night on matters of ‘business.’ He tells Cecilia a telegram has arrived requiring his immediate attention; the future acquisition of his magazine at stake. However, later the hacienda’s maid, Paquita (Rosa Rey) informs Cecilia no such telegram was delivered; Mark simply packed his bags in a curious huff and left for Levender Falls, N.Y. without any explanation.
Confused, Cecilia weeps in her bedroom until a hand-written note arrives by messenger. It’s Mark, telling her how much he adores her and to come home to Levender Falls as soon as possible. Presumably, he is counting the days. However, upon her arrival at the train station, Cecilia is met not by Mark, but by his sister, Caroline (Anne Revere – a great character actress utterly wasted in this thankless role). One twelve mile car ride later, and Cecilia arrives at Mark’s home; a moody manor. Mark’s secretary, Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neill) skulks about like a gargoyle with too much to hide. Not really, but more on that later. Too many skeletons come tumbling out all at once; Mark’s magazine and architectural career is a bust. He has since turned design into a minor hobby – collecting infamous ‘rooms’ from history where grisly murders were committed – recreated verbatim in his basement. Oh yeah…the guy has issues. Cecilia also discovers Mark once had a wife, Eleanor, who became ill and died. Their pre-teen son, David (Mark Dennis) is about as emotionally open to change as his old man, though not half the steely-eyed freak Caroline and Miss Robey intermittently suggests, and, that Mark will eventually prove to be.
Terrible times are afoot. Cecilia begins to realize as much when Mark doesn’t come home as planned. He makes her wait for days. Arriving at the depot with all the fresh-faced vitality of a young bride who cannot wait to get her man home, Cecilia is once more turned off by Mark’s frigid exterior. He tells her he must go to his office at once, and leaves her dangling about any definite plans when he is likely to return. Cecilia becomes momentarily angry – more so with herself (how could she have married a guy on the fly?) and decides to let her trunks remain at the station. Perhaps, she won’t remain a fixture in Mark’s life. But who is Cecilia kidding?  In short order, she has her things delivered to Mark’s house and begins the arduous task of unpacking. Some time passes. Things do not go smoothly. Cecilia learns from Caroline and the gardener, Andy (Houseley Stevenson) that, after Eleanor’s death, Mark had all the lilies pulled from the front garden.  Hmmm.
She also hears the story of how Miss Robey was badly burned while saving David from a house fire. Robey’s rescue efforts left her with a hideous scar. However, a short while later, Cecilia stumbles into Mark’s private upstairs office; one of the most utterly bizarre layouts in movie-land folklore - the atelier adjacent a small, but fashionable apartment where Mark chooses to live apart from his wife. Cecilia discovers Miss Robey caught without her veil, her scar perfectly healed, thanks to some miraculous plastic surgery endured while pretending to be on holiday.  Miss Robey makes Cecilia promise to keep this restoration of her waxen visage a secret, assuring Cecilia that if Mark ever knew he would most assuredly release her from his employ. He’s only kept her on all these years out of pity.
Cecilia promises Miss Robey not to tell her husband and remains true to her word. But a short while later, Mark fires Miss Robey anyway. Hmmmm. Cecilia and Mark throw a party for old friends. It gets rained out, forcing everyone indoors. The guests include Edith and Bob Dwight (James Seay); a former love interest, who has since begrudgingly accepted that he’s lost the only girl he ever loved. Bob cannot help but reveal to Cecilia the truth about Mark; he’s actually penniless, his assets mortgaged to the hilt. Edith goads Mark into taking a group of students and some of the party guests on a tour of the ‘rooms’ he has recreated in his basement. This is Cecilia’s first glimpse into Mark’s macabre collection; her husband becoming rather animated and congenial as he shows off his authentic recreations where unspeakable acts were committed by jealous husbands and lovers. All the rooms are explored except for #7; Mark reverting to his usual stolid self when Edith asked him to open the locked door. Mark quietly dismisses the request, saying the room is not completed yet.
Our story segues into its most banal expository sequence; Cecilia lurking about Mark’s office and private bedroom to steal his key to the locked room. Cutting one of the long tapered candles in her bedroom and melting the wax over a hot lamp, Cecilia makes an impression of the key and telephones Edith to make her a copy from the imprint. Mark enters Cecilia’s bedroom midway through the call and notices the foreshortened candle; eccentrically unsettled by it, but leaving Cecilia to finish her conversation. After the key arrives in a small box by mail, Cecilia waits until the rest of the household has fallen asleep before sneaking downstairs and unlocking the door to #7: an exact replica of the bedroom she currently occupies upstairs.
Presuming this means Mark has murdered his first wife, Cecilia discovers one of the candles on the dresser has also been cut; Mark having recreated her bedroom. Cecilia now realizes he plans to murder her. Mark appears in the doorway with a wild, hypnotic stare and clutching a scarf from one of the other rooms. He intends to use it to strangle Cecilia.  She pleads with him, eventually explaining he isn’t responsible for either his wife’s death or David’s near-fatal accident but that Miss Robey deliberate set the fire to destroy his family so she could pursue him for her own. How does she know all of this? Hmmmm. Mark awakens from his murderous intent. He and Cecilia embrace. Oh, now isn’t that convenient! Only suddenly, the pair discovers someone has locked them in and set the house ablaze. Breaking down the door and charging into the hall, Mark and Cecilia discover a gasoline can on the floor, flames licking at their heels. Smoke overcomes the pair and they momentarily collapse. But Mark is chivalrously stirred to break the glass of a nearby French door, carrying Cecilia to safety and discovering Miss Robey just beyond the patio, desperate and declaring she didn’t know he would be home this evening. We dissolve to the same hacienda in Mexico where our story began, Mark freed of his haunted past regressions and lying in dewy-eyed romantic repose as he and Cecilia embrace. What?!?!
Secret Beyond the Door is so overwrought in clichés and mismanaged narrative threads, it is virtually impossible to invest in the story. Fritz Lang’s feeble attempts to resolve the mystery in a few short scenes is about as weak-kneed and silly as movie contrivances get. Mark and Cecilia’s ‘happily ever after’ is a token gesture at best and absolute nonsense at its worst. Why would any woman almost strangled by her obviously psychotic husband choose to remain with him even if he does show curative signs of recovering from his mental malady? What of Miss Robey? Did she merely walk away from the blaze without any charges being pressed? Is she still stalking Mark and Cecilia? And what of Mark’s strained relationship with David; the boy he sent off to boarding school midway through our story?
Secret Beyond the Door sets up far too many questions, presumably to spark a lingering sense of foreboding. Regrettably, none of these plot devices go beyond the ‘tease’ and ‘cheat’ phase. The audience is left empty-handed by these empty-headed machinations. And Fritz Lang, despite imbuing a visual style writ in fourteen foot high letters of film noir’s chiaroscuro light and shadow, cannot salvage the mishmash that is Silvia Richards’ screenplay.  Every possible thing that can go wrong has in Secret Beyond the Door. There is zero chemistry between Michael Redgrave and Joan Bennett. He’s more wooden and brittle than a stick of kindling. She’s just too-too naïve; her doe caught in the headlamps becoming more the scared goat as the plot lumbers from one ineffectual vignette to the next.
Adding insult to injury: I have to say Olive Media’s Blu-ray left me flat. Olive Media is a company with singular business acumen: to dump as much B-grade film fodder into the marketplace in woefully substandard transfers sanctioned by their parent companies holding the rights. Occasionally (very occasionally, in fact) Olive has given us stellar 1080p transfers of The Quiet Man, High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (about the only three I can think of), albeit in bare bones releases. But after perusing their catalogue more extensively I have official sworn off any expectations for consistency or quality from this company.  Secret Beyond the Door does not disappoint on this score.
The B&W elements used in this transfer are pathetic; softly focused with bland contrast levels and film grain looking very digitally processed. Worse, the elements are riddled in tons of age-related artifacts; the only aspect of this transfer that pops with abysmal clarity. The last bit of sacrilege that unequivocally proves Olive Media doesn’t give a hoot about what they’re releasing - and in what condition - is the audio. Chronic hiss and pop abound. Joan Bennett’s low key voice-over narrations are barely audible, even when the volume is cranked up. Secret Beyond the Door is a visually ugly, grain-manipulated ‘Frisbee’ of a disc. I would not recommend it to anyone. Do not waste your money or your time on Olive Media any more. I certainly do not intend to!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
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VIDEO/AUDIO
1
EXTRAS

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