film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rope (1948)

Image result for rope film

Usually after watching a film, and before writing my review, I browse through other reviews to kind of whet the grindstone a little.  Not that I’m necessarily looking for guidance about what to say; more like, if I read something and think “huh, that’s an interesting idea” or “what, that’s nonsense”, that usually gives me a place to start.  If I have a violent opposition to someone else’s review, all the better. For Hitchcock’s Rope, what I noticed from the reviews was fairly interesting – they all seemed to focus on the aspect of the film I personally was least interested in remarking on.

I am indeed talking about how it looks like it’s all been filmed in one continuous take. It’s an interesting gimmick, sure. Hitchcock was inspired by a play about a murder, and how the whole story playing out in “real time” amped up the suspense; in translating that to film, he came up with a way to make it look like the whole thing was in a single take, using a specially designed set that allowed the camera crew to roll walls aside if they needed to move the camera more smoothly, or designing whisper-quiet motors to run lights.  The roommate told me there were also crew members on standby to sweep in and catch any errant props that may have been about to fall over so the noise wouldn’t disrupt a take.  (He also told me that one of the cameras accidentally rolled over one stagehand’s foot and broke it, and three other stagehands all frantically covered his mouth and dragged him offset before he screamed.)

Image result for rope film

The reviews who don’t mention that deal with how the story owes its inspiration to an actual crime committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, a pair of wealthy teens, in 1929.  Like Leopold and Loeb, our leads Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) believe that they are intellectual superiors to nearly everyone else, and this superiority gives them license to commit murder.  And they’re doing precisely that at the top of the film – strangling a school chum named David with a rope and stuffing his corpse in a big trunk in David’s apartment. They need to wait until dark before stashing the body, and Brandon’s decided to secretly gloat a bit by hosting a cocktail party for David’s parents, girlfriend, and best friend, as well as Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), their house master at their old prep school.  Rupert had discussed the idea of Nietzche’s “superman” with them back in the day; and once, for kicks, shared with them a satirical essay on how murder could be considered an art.  But for Rupert, these chats were just an intellectual exercise; it seems that Brandon took them a little more seriously.  In fact, just before the guests arrive, Brandon spontaneously decides to move the table setting from the dining room to the the chest hiding David’s body.  That’s where Philip quietly starts to freak out – just minutes before the first guests arrive.

Image result for rope film

Now, both of those elements of the film are things you may have heard of before.  I know I did, and I’d never even seen the film.  The one-take stuff was fun to see; and there was one moment that was surprisingly tense, towards the end when a maid is slowly and methodically starting to clear the dinner dishes and then the table linens off the chest, then gradually bringing stacks of books back in from the next room, preparing to stow them back into the chest; we’re listening to the other characters speak, but what we see is the maid at work, moving from the chest to the kitchen, then back, where she grabs a dish or two, walks back to the kitchen, then comes back, and…and the whole time I was on tenterhooks wondering “are you going to open the trunk or what now???”  But otherwise, the one-take angle came off as more of a clever stunt.  Effective and impressive, but still a stunt where I could see the mechanics.

Image result for rope film

Instead, I was way more fascinated with simply watching Dall as Brandon. I don’t know enough about the Leopold and Loeb case; but here, Brandon is presented as the ringleader who’s talked Philip into going along with him.  He’s charming and suave, and perfectly poised for much of the film – as opposed to Philip, who’s nervous and edgy and who gradually falls apart.  But Brandon seems to have one tiny weakness – he’s desperate for Rupert’s approval, and just can’t help steering the conversation around to things Rupert had said in the past about murder and art.  Clearly it’d be foolish for him to tell Rupert what they’ve done, but….deep down he wants Rupert to know, and despite himself, starts dropping bigger and bigger hints.  But Rupert’s no slouch, and suspects something’s up early in the evening – and has decided to play it cool, spurring Brandon to show his hand more and more.

Image result for rope film

Apparently, in the original play, there was some heavy insinuation that Rupert, Brandon, and Philip had all been each other’s lovers at one point (and that Brandon and Philip were still kind of involved). But this read much more like a child trying to seek approval from a teacher he admired, and the teacher just hanging back knowing that the child was going to spill his guts sooner or later.  Stewart and Dall are both remarkably subtle here; Dall never goes totally obvious with his hints, and we never see more than the slightest ripple in his calm.  And Stewart never gets histrionic about his suspicions until the very end; but much earlier, there’s a moment when Stewart is listening to Dall as Brandon talking about David, and the camera is focused on him listening with a thoughtful smile. He never breaks that smile – but at some point, as he listens, we can tell the exact moment when he realizes what happened.

So see Rope for the technical expertise if you like, but don’t forget to watch for what I found to be a tour de force performance from a pair of actors.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Snake Pit (1948)

Image result for the snake pit

Thus quipped the roommate when this film ended: “I bet a young Ken Kesey saw this.”  He was thinking – as was I – of Kesey’s book One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which has a very similar perspective to The Snake Pit in some sequences.

It’s not an exact parallel, however. Olivia de Havilland stars as “Virginia Cunningham”, although she seems a bit confused about the “Cunningham” part at first.  She’s pretty confused in general, in fact – we meet Virginia sitting on a park bench and looking a bit rumpled, hearing a disembodied male voice asking her questions.  She looks about her and sees no man – only a similarly-disheveled woman sitting beside her, and other women – some nurses –  milling about in the yard of what looks like a prison. She is surprised when the woman beside her starts leading her into the prison and is even more surprised that everyone treats her like she’s already been there a while.

Image result for the snake pit

For Virginia is indeed an inmate – but an inmate in a mental institution, with no clear memory of how she got there.  The last thing she remembers is living in an apartment in New York and working on a writing career.  Vaguely she remembers living in Chicago before then.  She remembers nothing of being married (and doesn’t recognize her husband during an early visit he makes), nothing about what brought her to the institution, and nothing about why the date “May 12th” seems to send her into a panic.  The only thing that seems to be cutting through her confusion is the care of her doctor, a psychiatrist who simplifies his mouthful of a name as “Dr. Kik” (Leo Genn).   Everything else around Virginia is a confusion of militant nurses, erratically-behaving fellow patients, arbitrary rules and scary electroshock therapy – but Dr. Kik is kind to her and patiently keeps reminding her that he is there to help her get better.

Image result for the snake pit

…So, yes, we do finally find out what’s behind Virginia’s illness.  Dr. Kik seems almost singularly dedicated to helping Virginia – he intercedes to cancel her electroshock therapy early when it seems to do more harm than good, he patiently makes himself available for consultations at all hours (even at about 3 a.m.), he uses drug therapy and hypnotherapy and Freudian talk therapy and any one of a number of treatments to draw Virginia out.  As I watched it did feel like Dr. Kik was a stereotypical “Hero Doctor” (there’s even a scene when some of the other doctors call him on his behavior, pointing out that they have hundreds of other patients, so why focus on this one), but in retrospect, this film is largely from Virginia’s perspective, and her doctor would indeed loom large in her mind.  And the “reason” for Virginia’s illness isn’t all that interesting at the end of the day anyway. The movie draws the mystery out, gradually unwrapping all the layers only to uncover a somewhat routine incident from Virginia’s childhood.  Dr. Kik is a Freudian by trade, so that is held up as the be-all and end-all of Virginia’s issues, but it felt a bit simplistic.

What’s more interesting – or at least more attention-getting – are the “life on the ward” moments when Virginia is interacting with all the various nurses and the other patients.  There are cruel nurses and kind ones; there are lucid patients and delirious ones. There’s even a nurse who becomes a patient.  There’s a pecking order between the different wards in the hospital, and your ward number says much about where you are in your illness and how you are treated; the patients in Ward One are nearly cured, and enjoy private rooms (provided they can keep up with the ward nurse’s standards of tidiness), while the patients in Ward 33 are considered the sickest, and are left to meander around in a cavernous basement room as they babble and rave.

Image result for the snake pit

Ward 33 is the “Snake Pit” of the title – ironically, Virginia’s visit there is something of a turning point, as she not only starts to get a firm grip on her mental state during her stay there, but is able to reach out to another Ward 33 resident with kindness, drawing her out of her own illness.

The film was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by novelist Mary Jane Ward, who had once spent time in an institution after a mistaken diagnosis of schizophrenia.  Ward based a lot of the accounts of treatment in the novel on her own experience; director Anatole Litvak spent an additional several months studying psychiatric treatments, the culture of mental institutions, and various types of illness and their symptoms.  Where possible, he brought the rest of the cast and crew along with him.  Olivia de Havilland did a good deal of her own research as well – so much so that when one critic was skeptical about a particular scene in the film, de Havilland was able to call her and present several examples of that very event happening.

Image result for the snake pit

The research seems to have especially paid off with the actresses playing the various patients. There are a wide range of symptoms on display, from catatonia to aggression to delusion to erratic memory to erratic behavior to obsession to… There’s even a realness to the “patient culture” among the inmates, with cigarettes being used as currency and emptied-out chocolate boxes being used as purses (we first see Virginia with one, and then I started seeing it among other patients).  Apparently the actresses playing patients sold their parts so well that theaters in the United Kingdom saw fit to preface all screenings with a disclaimer to squelch a rumor that the film had used actual mental patients as extras.  To be fair, the behaviors they were displaying had never really been depicted in any film about “mental illness” before, and it all came as something of a shock to contemporary audiences.  ….For my part, though, I watched the scenes in Ward 33 with an internal chuckle that “man, how much fun must that have been to perform?”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

Image result for the lady from shanghai

Before I begin, would you all please indulge me in something I need to get off my chest?

(deep breath)

GREAT HOLY BONGO NUTS WITH A DACHSHUND IN A LOBSTER BIB DOES ORSON WELLES EVER DO A TERRIBLE IRISH ACCENT IN THIS FILM OW.

(exhale)

So.

This feels like it could have been a decent little noir. Welles is “Mike O’Hara,” a sailor and would-be writer who comes to the rescue of a beautiful stranger in Central Park, interrupting a gang of thugs trying to mug her. The grateful Elsa (Rita Hayworth) lets Mike bring her home; they flirt up a storm on the way, but then Mike learns she’s married to a wealthy lawyer and backs off. But Elsa’s not that easily snubbed; she sends her husband Arthur (Everett Sloane) to hire Mike as a bo’sun on their private yacht, for an upcoming cruise from New York to San Francisco.

Image result for the lady from shanghai

Arthur’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) meets them in the Caribbean, and at first grates on Mike’s nerves by teasing him over his obvious attraction to Elsa. But then he takes Mike aside for a proposal – George says he wants Mike to kill him.  Or….at least make it look like that. George can pay Mike handsomely, he says – enough to run away with Elsa, anyway.  Mike is initially horrified, but the more the trip goes on, the more enamored he becomes of Elsa – and the better George’s proposal starts to look.  However, the more the trip goes on, the more it also looks like Elsa or Arthur might be in on the plot with George.  Unless they’re plotting against each other.  Or all three are plotting against each other.  But how?…

I admit that I still am not entirely sure exactly how the conspiracy in question ultimately played out.  There was just a lot of double- and triple-crossing and moving parts, and ultimately I got a bit lost. Rita Hayworth is lovely as the mysterious Elsa, and I found myself torn between wanting to mock George or punch him; he has a delightfully bonkers reason for wanting Mike to kill him at first.\

As for Welles….he sets up some beautiful-looking shots, but ultimately his own performance is a little….mediocre (except that blasted accent). His screenplay also let him indulge in some fairly pretentious monologues about how corrupt and wicked Elsa and Arthur are; a position Mike has entirely due to class and money.  Nothing Mike says is anything I haven’t heard outside of an Occupy Wall Street rally, and the pace of the film grinds to a halt whenever Mike stops to lecture someone.

Image result for the lady from shanghai

There’s also a sequence towards the end that is symbolic to the point of being borderline silly; a showdown in a funhouse hall of mirrors. This movie is actually the source of that trope where one person is stalking another in such a hall of mirrors, mistaking a reflection for the real person and shattering the mirror.  Before that showdown, though, Mike stumbled about through the funhouse his voiceover discusses how he’s been lead along by Elsa and Arthur, fallen for their toying with him, and tossed about in a shifting story – and just from my saying those things, you can guess what bits of the funhouse Mike is stumbling through as he speaks, can’t you?  The last bit with the hall of mirrors was clever, but the rest was way too on-the-nose.

Ultimately it came across like it started as a noir but Welles wanted it to make more of A Statement, and piled on the Things He Wanted To Say but then it collapsed under the extra weight Welles was putting on it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Paleface (1948)

Image result for the paleface

I discussed this a bit with the roommate before firing it up. I mentioned that this may be my only in-list exposure to Bob Hope; for me, having grown up in the 1970s and 80s, Bob Hope was one of a cluster of old-fashioned comedians who had occasional variety show specials or made guest appearances on talk shows now and then.  Hope was a sort of “perpetual Oscar Awards host” in my head as a child, before he was replaced by Johnny Carson.

We were both surprised that The List didn’t include any of the Road To {etc.} movies he did with Bing Crosby, and which to my understanding are the films for which he’s best known for.  Instead, I got this – a Western-themed comedy matching him up with Jane Russell.  Russell plays a fictionalized version of Calamity Jane, who’s cooling her heels in a prison at the top of the film; she’s sprung from jail and secretly brought to the governor’s office, where he offers her a full pardon if she does a bit of espionage. It seems that someone has been smuggling guns to the Indians near a frontier outpost, and the governor has a tip that they’ll be joining a wagon train headed thither to make another dropoff.  Jane is to meet up with another agent so they can join the train posing as husband and wife and secretly flush out the smugglers.

Image result for the paleface

But Jane discovers her contact has been killed just before their meeting – and there are some shady characters on her tail.  She ducks into the frontier office of “Painless” Potter (Hope), a quack dentist, hoping to shake her stalkers.  Potter’s a dud of a dentist – the whole time that Jane is trying to evade capture, Potter is making complete hash of a tooth extraction, and conveniently closes up shop to skip town right when Jane needs to make her own escape.  So she stows away on Potter’s wagon, waiting until they are safely out of town to reveal herself.  Jane quickly sizes Potter up as a cowardly buffoon – but she needs a cover story to join the wagon train, and Potter has a wagon and he seems smitten with her.  So…maybe she can use him instead?

Image result for the paleface

The rest of the film is a bouquet of schtick involving chuck wagons, Indians, saloon visits and shootouts, with Jane inexplicably growing fond of the ridiculous Potter.  Intellectually, I could recognize and respect Bob Hope as a talent – but honestly, while he’s performing well, none of the gags he was performing were doing anything for me.  It all seemed the same kind of hokey stuff I’d recognized from his Oscar host gigs, and my reaction was just a sort of shrug and yawn.  Some of their depictions of Indians, too, are kinda cringey.

Image result for the paleface

There was one sweet little element, though – a song, “Buttons and Bows”, which Potter serenades Jane with at one point as they travel.  It’s not the most “woke” song, I’ll admit – the lyrics are all about wanting to abandon the frontier and move back to where women can indulge in more feminine dress and habits.  But there’s something charmingly catchy about it, to the point that I’ve still got it in my head twelve hours later.  Critics of the time seemed to agree – I’ve just read the original New York Times review of the film, which largely sneers at the whole film but then adds “and yet there’s this lovely little song….” in the last paragraph.  “Buttons and Bows” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Song that year to boot.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Spring In A Small Town (1948)

Image result for spring in a small town

Spring In A Small Town came out at a weird point in Chinese filmmaking history.  It was just after World War II – which itself had been folded into the much lengthier Sino-Japanese War – but was just before Mao Zedong’s ultimate victory in the Communist Revolution.  One of the Chinese Communist Party’s acts upon their victory was a sort of reckoning of all the entertainment that had recently come out; anything that lacked a sufficiently leftist political stance got dismissed as rightist or reactionary, and was shunned by the new government.  So this film, among many others, got shelved for decades.

Image result for spring in a small town

Even though you’d be hard-pressed, frankly, to find any political message in this film, aside from “war is bad”.  It’s a much simpler tale of a love triangle between Dai Liyan (Yu Shi (石羽)), a youngish man living in a small town in Eastern China, Liyan’s wife Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei (韋偉)), and Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei), an old friend who comes to pay a visit.  For the past several years Yuwen and Liyan’s marriage has been rocky; the war has largely wiped out Liyan’s family fortune, and he hasn’t really recovered from the loss emotionally; he spends most of his days moping in the ruins of the main house, suffering from an illness which is likely psychosomatic, while Yuwen patiently tends to both him and his spunky teenage sister Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei). Yuwen has long since fallen out of love with Liyan – if she ever did love him – and is only sticking around out of a sense of duty.

Liyan does perk up when his old school friend Zhichen comes to town.  The pair were thick as thieves back in the day, and Zhichen reminds Liyan of happier times and invites him to stay a while. He wouldn’t believe how big Dai Xiu has gotten, remember she was only six last time you saw her?  Oh, and you have to meet my wife Yuwen….

…Except Yuwen and Zhichen already have met.  Ten years ago.  When they broke up right before Yuwen married Liyan.

Image result for spring in a small town

That simmering tension drives the rest of the plot. Yuwen and Zhichen had had a passionate romance, and some of the sparks are definitely still there. But some of the present fire could also be driven by Yuwen’s general hunger for male attention – or even for any kind of novelty, as there’s very little to do in their village side from stroll along the old city wall. Yuwen and Zhichen stroll there a time or two, discussing the question of “what the hell do we do”, and Yuwen tries several of her own ideas to defuse what’s becoming a time bomb – including trying to throw the barely-legal Dai Xiu at Zhichen.  Things finally come to something of a head at Dai Xiu’s sixteenth birthday party, which the family celebrates with a series of silly games – and Yuwen gets herself really, really drunk, to the point that her simmering feelings for Zhichen get a little bit more obvious.

Image result for spring in a small town

….For me, I have to admit, this wasn’t always a captivating film to watch. It’s slow and plodding in its pace, it rarely ventures out of the house and garden that have become Yuwen’s world, and it really draws out the tension of the love triangle. But that all may of course have been intentional – as monotonous as life with Liyan seemed to me, it must have seemed doubly so for Yuwen, which may have been precisely the point.

Image result for spring in a small town

There are also some beautifully composed shots – one long shot from one of Yuwen and Zhichen’s walks simply shows them walking down a path away from the camera, each primly sticking to opposite sides of the path. And ever-so-gradually, Yuwen’s steps edge closer and closer to Zhichen’s, until she is walking close enough beside him to hold his hand – which she does for just a second or two, before veering back to her side of the path again.  It was simple, it was wordless, it said so much.

Speaking of saying things – one nit I will pick is that the film frequently has Yuwen narrating some of the scenes.  Either she’s describing the ongoing action, or she’s discussing her inner thoughts.  I really didn’t need to hear it, as the wordless performances were often more telling.  Spring in A Small Town was ultimately re-discovered in recent years, and enjoyed a remake in 2002 – and cutting the narration was one of the few changes the remake made.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Red River (1948)

Image result for red river movie

I’ve been largely lukewarm on Westerns. That wasn’t a period in our country’s history that ever grabbed my interest, and a lot of the Westerns that crossed my path seemed to be pretty cliché-driven and all seemed to have a lot of the same details. (New roommate came home from a trip in the middle of this film and went directly to his room to unpack; later he correctly guessed that I had watched a John Wayne Western, and told me that he could tell what I was watching just from overhearing the score.)  Red River, however, had a couple of surprises in store for me.

The film does indeed star John Wayne, as “Thomas Dunson”, who’s part of a wagon train to California at the top of the film. However, as the train is passing through Texas, Dunson’s eyeing the landscape and notices that “the land here seems pretty good, actually,” and announces he’s dropping out to start a ranch right there. His trail hand Mr. Groot (Walter Brennan) comes along, and they spot distant smoke as they make camp that first evening, and guess – correctly – that the wagon train has been surprised by an Indian attack.  But there was one survivor – Matthew Garth, a teenage boy who turns up in their camp the following morning, delirious from shock and leading a single cow.  Dunson calms him down and takes him in – all Dunson has is a bull, and with Garth’s cow, maybe they can get a jump on starting their own herd.

Image result for red river movie john wayne

Fourteen years later, Dunson’s ranch, the “Red River D”, boasts ten thousand head of cattle on prime land near the Rio Grande. But times are still hard – Dunson has been selling cattle throughout the southeast, but the Reconstruction-era economy has tanked that market. Dunson gets the idea to drive the herd north to Missouri – a distance of several hundred miles through land crawling with Indians and other cattle rustlers.  If they make it, though, they stand to strike it rich.  Garth – now a strapping young man, played by Montgomery Clift – says he’s heard of a new stockyard in Abilene, Kansas, which would be closer; but Dunson dismisses this as rumor and rounds up a crew for the long drive north.

Image result for red river movie

The trip is indeed just as dangerous as everyone fears, with the herd suffering from poor weather and a stampede that kills some of the men.  Food runs short and morale runs low.  And the closer they get, the more rumors they hear of a stockyard in Abilene – and the stricter Dunson gets with his discipline, whipping one man for stealing sugar and shooting two men trying to desert the team. Finally, the men have enough – and as Dunson prepares to hang a couple of deserters, Garth intercedes, injuring Dunson in the process. Garth takes control of the whole business, kicking Dunson out and announcing he’s going to head for Abilene; Dunson warns Garth that he’ll be coming after him for revenge.  The threat looms over the men as they travel on; Abilene may be closer, but it’s still some ways off, and they’ll be crossing through Apache territory on the way. And at any moment, Dunson could be coming up behind…

Image result for red river movie

A lot of the tropes I’ve come to expect from Westerns were all here – the sweeping scenery, the folksy conversations around campfires, combat with various Native American nations, John Wayne looking grim.  The plot surprised me, though – it’s a sort of Mutiny On The Bounty on horseback, with Dunson going from being the square-jawed hero to being the Bad Guy.  I didn’t notice when I was watching, but another review I’ve read points out that Wayne’s costume even switches over the course of the film – he starts with a white hat, but towards the end, he sports a black one.  Garth is no impulsive Fletcher Christian tempted by ease, though – Garth may start out impulsive in his scenes as a kid, but Clift’s take on Garth is more measured; he knows what he’s talking about and he’s just as good a rancher as Dunson, he’s just more fair to the staff. Dunson sneeringly dismisses Garth as “soft” in one scene, but Garth’s approach seems more like good business management.  And he’s right about Abilene having a stockyard.

Image result for red river movie

My favorite bit, though, came in the very last scene; I will get into spoilers a bit, so fair warning, but I loved it too much not to share…

While en route to Abilene, Garth’s team rescues a wagon train from an Apache attack, and earns the admiration of a woman named Tess (Joanne Dru). She wants to join Garth, but he turns her down.  Then Dunson and his posse meet up with them a few days later. Tess correctly guesses that Dunson is heading after Garth and convinces him to let her tag along, so she is on hand when Dunson reaches Abilene, and slips away to warn Garth.  And she’s also on hand when Garth and Dunson have their final showdown in the streets.

Image result for red river movie

What I loved best, though, is that she is also on hand to defuse the showdown – by calling it out as the dick-measuring contest that it is.  She’s spoken to both Garth and Dunson over the past several days, she knows each others’ perspective of their disagreement.  She also has noticed that Dunson doesn’t seem willing to shoot to kill – he only aims between Garth’s feet, while Garth doesn’t even draw.  Soon Dunson gives up his gun and turns to fisticuffs. And after only a few minutes of watching them fight, Tess finally blows up, ranting at both Dunson and Garth that both of them are being completely stupid before storming off, leaving them both blinking in surprise, realizing that she’s right.

The short story on which this film was based ends very differently, and apparently the original author hated this ending – but I was delighted; the feud between Garth and Dunson is the kind of thing that could have been settled by simply talking to each other like grown-ups, and here was someone in the film demanding that they do exactly that.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Secret Beyond The Door (1948)

Image result for secret beyond the door

So my guess is that this is the sequence of events that lead to this film existing.

  • Fritz Lang, the film pioneer who gave us such works as Metropolis and Mwas an enormous inspiration to later filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock among them.  And Lang knew it.
  • The Second World War cut into Lang’s work a little, giving these younger filmmakers a chance to claim the spotlight, and Hitchcock in particular started to overtake Lang, with works like Rebecca and Spellbound.
  • When the war ended, Lang finally got a chance to catch up – and chose to re-assert himself at the same time, by copying several of Hitchcock’s recent films all in one fell swoop.

At least that’s what this looks like is going on.  And it also looks…pretty darn nuts.

Image result for secret beyond the door

Plotwise it looks nuts, anyway. Joan Bennett plays Celia Lamphere, the new bride to a brooding architect named Mark (Michael Redgrave) whom she meets while on a vacation in Mexico.  They marry after only a week, and after a starry-eyed honeymoon in a Mexican Villa they head back to the the Lamphere manse in upstate New York.  There, Celia discovers a few things that Mark had forgotten to tell her – like, the fact that he was previously married, and had a teenage son.  Or that his older sister lives with them.  And so does a secretary.

Image result for secret beyond the door

Celia also learns about one of Mark’s hobbies; during their honeymoon he told her he “collected rooms” where “felicitous things happened”.  No doubt Celia thought, as I did, that Mark either saved pictures of them, or made little scale models in his workroom.  But no – during a baroquely gothic sequence, Mark gives Celia and a bunch of house guests a tour of the huge hall in his basement where he’s recreated the actual rooms, in meticulous detail.  Even more disturbingly – the rooms he’s created were all murder scenes.  And there’s one room that Mark forbids anyone to enter – especially Celia.  Celia’s already on edge after a conversation with  various conversations with the secretary Mrs. Robie, who wears a scarf obscuring the left half of her face at all times and who seems weirdly obsessed with Mark, and with Mark’s son David, who’s convinced that Mark killed his mother…

“Baroquely Gothic” seems a good descriptor for the film overall, more so than “noir”.  So many details about this film – the plot, the sets, the costumes – seem heightened and over-the-top in a way designed to creep you out.  Celia always seems to be poking around through dark rooms and secret doors, half the scenes at the Lamphere mansion show the grounds wreathed in fog, characters’ back stories involve parental cruelty and natural disasters and psychological trauma.

Image result for secret beyond the door

Visually, however, it all looks amazing. Over the top batcrap, but amazing – Lang still has the same eye for visuals he always did.  I was especially struck at a shot during Celia and Mark’s wedding, when she’s temporarily second-guessing her choice – “I’m marrying a stranger!” she thinks to herself, in a voiceover. And at that moment, Mark takes one step away from the altar towards her – and that step puts Barrymore right into a shadow, hiding his face from us.  All those scenes of Celia exploring the mansion are similarly gorgeous.  Towards the end there’s a scene where Celia is trying to make an escape from the mansion, running through the fog-wreathed grounds – and pauses for a moment to see if she’s being followed.  And when ever-so-slowly a figure emerged from the fog and started towards her, I admit I shivered.

Image result for secret beyond the door

Most critics seem to be as equally torn on this film as I am – half seem to cleave to the gorgeous cinematography, insisting it carries things, while the other half seem to have been turned off by the outlandishness of the plot.  I’m leaning towards the latter; but have been wondering what it would be like if it were given more of a camp remake.