© 2013 William Ahearn
In The Films of Fritz Lang, Frederick Ott writes, “In the last eight years of his American career, from the release of ‘The Secret Beyond The Door’ to the completion of ‘Beyond A Reasonable Doubt,’ [Fritz] Lang showed a lack of critical judgment in the selection of stories and scripts. There were exceptions, of course – most notably ‘Clash By Night’ and ‘The Big Heat’ – but most of the material he chose in this period was banal at best.”
Gavin Lambert wrote in Sight & Sound in 1955 – and cited by Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang In America – that “after his first two pictures in Hollywood, [Fritz] Lang went into decline, with only occasional flashes of his former talent and personality.” Bogdanovich describes Lambert’s statement as the “conventional opinion” of Lang’s Hollywood work.
Where Lang’s “decline” begins seems more a matter of expectations based on an image of Lang that may be false. This was one time where Lang had plenty of time to work the kinks out of the script. The other prior film where Lang had enough time was “You and Me” and that film also bombed and the script was at fault as it was with “Hangmen Also Die” where Lang reinserted scenes that Bertold Brecht had cut and cut scenes that Brecht had thought essential to the film, among other changes and decisions. At some point the ghost of Thea von Harbou rises from the ashes of these failures and it becomes difficult to believe that Lang – who supposedly co-wrote “Der müde Tod,” “Dr Mabuse, der Spieler,” “Metropolis,” and “M,” among others – couldn’t get a single treatment produced that he began as an original idea. He presented numerous ideas to various studios and none of them ever went anywhere.
If anything indicates Lang’s “lack of critical judgment” mentioned by Ott, it is that Lang put aside work on “Winchester ‘73” to work on “Secret Beyond The Door,” based on the story Museum Piece No 13 by Rufus King. The basic gist – that Patrick McGilligan explains in detail in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast – is that Lang was in love with Silvia Richards – whose only previous credit was co-writer on “Possessed” starring Joan Crawford – and hired her as a scriptwriter for Diana Productions, the company founded by Joan Bennett, Walter Wanger and Fritz Lang that had produced “Scarlet Street.” Lang had an idea to revive his 1940 treatment for “Superstition Mountain” and met with Stuart N Lake to see if he was interested in writing the script. Lake wasn’t interested but mentioned he had written a treatment for his story “Winchester ’73” and Diana Productions ended up buying the rights from Universal where it had sat in the files. Part of the deal was that Lake would write the script. Lang soon fired him and put Richards on the project as scriptwriter.
Walter Wanger felt that Lang and Richards working on both scripts simultaneously while being involved emotionally wasn’t in the best interests of productivity. Lang assured Wanger that there would be no problems. The private life of Fritz Lang (or any other director) shouldn’t be of interest except in this case it seems to have had direct bearing on Lang’s abysmal decisions regarding “Secret Beyond The Door.”
The similarities between “Secret Beyond The Door” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” are more than coincidental. “You remember that wonderful scene,” Lang asked Bogdanovich, “in ‘Rebecca’ where Judith Anderson talks about Rebecca and shows Joan Fontaine the clothes and fur pieces and everything?” Lang goes on to say, “Talk about stealing – I had the feeling that maybe I could do something similar in [‘Secret Beyond The Door’] when Redgrave talks about the different rooms.” Gene Fowler Jr – Lang’s favorite editor – said, “Fritz hated Hitchcock because he felt that Hitchcock had usurped his title as king of suspense. He felt he knew suspense better than Hitchcock.” Lang even hired Miklos Rozsa, the composer for “Spellbound” to compose the music for “The Secret Beyond The Door.”
Lang described the film as “psychological realism” and had originally wanted a different actress than Joan Bennett to do the narration and that didn’t sit well with Bennett or her husband-producer Walter Wanger. That was only one of the myriad problems that arose between Lang and everyone else on the production. Lang fought constantly with cinematographer Stanley Cortez but Bennett loved how Cortez lit her and that also put her at odds with Lang. Lang – according to Joan Bennett – risked Bennett and Redgrave’s safety by refusing to use doubles during the house burning sequence that Lang insisted on re-shooting so many times that one crewmember said “it seemed like 185 times.” Bennett said “We fled, terrified, through flames, time and again.” Bennett would later describe the film as “an unqualified disaster.”
The story is of a smitten and rich widow who marries in haste and finds that her new husband isn’t rich, has a son from a previous marriage and lives in a mansion where he fashions rooms based on famous murders and the former widow comes to believe that her new husband is out to kill her. It’s a story that’s been done to death and in this version Lang’s “psychological realism” has been – by Lotte Eisner, among others – compared to Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.” While “Spellbound” is just as hokey in its own way, I sometimes think that Sigmund Freud did as much damage to Hollywood films as Joe Breen of the Hays Office. Granted that Hollywood trivialized Freud’s questionable theories and in the case of “Secret Beyond the Door,” they are not only trivial but the effect is instantaneous, as pointed out by several critics. Being hokier than “Spellbound” is an achievement, I suppose, but not one to put on a resume.
It was also around this time that Lang “repudiated the extreme pessimism” of his German films and embraced the “happy ending” in “Happily Ever After” an essay he wrote for The Penguin Film Review. Lang has had any number of silly endings to his films – some he discredited and some he endorsed – although this one particularly rankled the critics by being far less credible than most. Around this time, Lang worked on “Rocket Story,” a story about rocket development and moon travel that was before the first Hollywood film on the subject, “Destination Moon” and its interesting that no one sought to exploit Lang's interest in science fiction films and it might be because no one in the US saw “Woman in the Moon.”
“Secret Beyond The Door” would mark the end of Diana Productions and the beginning of a slump for Lang that would epitomize Frederick Ott’s notion of “banal” choices.