The Secret Beyond the Door (Fritz Lang, 1947, with Joan Bennett and Richard Redgrave) was released at the height of the brief boom in what is styled by this website at least, as the ‘paranoid woman film.’ In these momentarily fashionable movies, female sobs glance from wall to wall, doors loom large, keys symbolise everything, and worst of all — your husband wants to KILL YOU. The psychology is always cod, but to make it even fishier, a psychoanalyst character is usually thrown in. In The Secret Beyond the Door, one of the lead’s friends pipes up at the half way point and announces: “Paging Dr. Freud!” Excitement, mystery and nerves on edge — is this what every woman longs for?
Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door. Ladies, it is your turn now.
Nowhere do you get more of this nonsense than in film noir. The 1940s kept all of its nastiest secrets in noir, and that’s what makes watching film noir so rewarding. It’s the history lessons. There are only three types of woman in any film noir at any given time — the deadly seductress; the innocent and rejuvenating redeemer; and the paranoid wifelet. Even though it's not a paranoid woman film, The Stranger (1946, Orson Welles) sees Loretta Young fling herself from doubt to indecision, unable to handle truth of any sort. Even when Edward G. Robinson FORCES HER to watch footage of Nazi concentration camps (pretty bold for 1946) she still refuses to accept the villainy that;s staring her in the face, probably because the villainy is in that most precious of American sanctums, the suburban family home. It’s true that noir was the only place at the time where women are deadly, sexy and strong, but the flipside of that has noir women not merely harmless, frilly and weak, but as paranoid victims of psychological evils, often seemingly dreamed up by themselves.
If you’re writing film criticism, you’re assuming that film movements occur in specific historical periods and are consistent in expressing thematic and formal aspects and are expressive of their times. Notably in noir, we’re looking for fears and hopes of the age, made concrete in the loss of clarity, identity and security rampant in the noir cycle — and so much of it is heaped on to the lassies.
If she loves him, shouldn't she look happier than this?
There are women cowering then, fidgeting with their hems in the darkness of noir. In fact, what maybe characterises noir most of all is the expressive uses of darkness, and the psychological expressions lurking in the shadows. Doppelgangers and dark ghosts are suggested, and the women of film noir are the expression of fears of sexuality, and the need to repress it most thoroughly. The same cues appear in all film noir where women are concerned — makeup, jewellery and cigarettes. All these things instantly convey the essential information about the film noir woman, and what her role is going to be.
Joan Bennett, paranoid woman, Hollywood, 1947
The paranoid woman film has its feet in the horror camp, though forays into thriller and drama were plausible, especially if noir elements are combined as in The Secret Beyond the Door. Infamous paranoid woman films include: The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Possessed (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Sleep, My Love (1948), The Heiress (1949), Under Capricorn (1949), and Caught (1949). In Sleep, My Love, a wealthy New Yorker, hasn't a clue how she ended up on a train bound for Boston, but someone may be out to murder her. In Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorm, Ingrid Bergman plays an alcoholic with a dark secret in 1830s Australia.
It was as if a great critical trick had been performed, somehow linking the form of the paranoid woman film to the Gothic, and was maybe the fault of Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940), which kicked the genre off. Whatever it was, paranoid woman features such as The Secret Beyond the Door are thematically attached to Gothic fantasy, where ideally women wear white shifts and are sexual and social victims. The link persisted into film noir because critics valued the association that the Gothic had with classic literature and the historical past. This credible link to the Gothic gave the nonsense that these paranoid woman movies contained such prestige, and even allowed them to be seen as realist, even though they present the most unrealistic vision of womanhood available. Added to this, as in The Secret Beyond the Door, is a form of social commentary, in which middle class behaviour is treated with the help of popular Freudian motifs.
The house yes - but it's the scarf that really plays on your weak, female mind
The house is a key focus in the paranoid woman feature, and the house in The Secret Beyond the Door is simply too weird to handle. It’s not unlike a man to collect things, but the collection in question in The Secret Beyond the Door is too weird, even by the brash standards of the Freudian psychology that is (supposed to be) at play. It’s all dated now; not only does Freud seem too obvious in this context, but a guy needs more motive than this these days, for such strange behaviours.
The split between melodrama and film noir in The Secret Beyond the Door is unclear. There is hocus pocus in spades, and possibly too many intimations of the film Rebecca, which was more of a success, and which kicked off the paranoid woman phenomenon. The most successful aspect of The Secret Beyond the Door by far is Celia’s narration, delivered in film noir fig by Joan Bennett, much the way we’re used to the jaded cop or detective doing in the hard-boiled thriller.
Trial, authority, masculinity, film noir, Richard Redgrave (1947)
This is the Freudian version of hard-boiled though, playing against religious imagery, and reverting to Fritz Lang’s suspenseful play on the overall mystery — and again and again this film asks repeatedly - "What is behind that freaking door!" The suspense is so enjoyable in fact, that the revelation is always going to mark the end of the film, but there is a lot at stake, first the woman’s life but more importantly her relationship. The image used to market The Secret Beyond the Door — Joan Bennett standing against a grossly distorted door — evokes all the German expressionist cinema for which Lang was once famed, but it really isn’t that sort of film. Instead, it’s a display of frenzied romanticism, complete with a draughty and desolate mansion, a shady housekeeper and a woman competing with a dead ex-wife.
Women — here for you in black and white, are your greatest fears — domestic life, the family, motherhood, self-sacrifice, and romance. I like the way that cinema historian Jeanine Basinger says that these movies ultimately serve "to reaffirm in the end the concept that a woman's true job is that of being a woman". I refer to this rather good book here: Basinger, Jeanine (1994). A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960.
But back to noir, where the women are defined by their sexuality, and always in relation to the guys. There is a sense that even in this limited fashion, film noir makes gender more interesting for the sheer amount of bums, heels, losers and generally confused men that it features. Nowhere else do you find these hapless characters in such abundance, often driven by revenge, often driven by psychology, but generally driven by reasons beyond their control. I began this by saying that women can only play one of several roles in a true film noir, but actually compared to other popular genres such as melodrama, war and comedy, there was realtively quite a lot on offer.
Indeed, women-films of the 1940s are striking in the way they combine romance, mystery, obsession and horror, and when these are offered with a good story as they are in the Oscar winning Rebecca (1940), a real emotional energy is achieved. The Secret Beyond the Door doesn't add much to the genre and if anything muddies the waters, taking what it feels are the succesful elements of the Daphne du Maurier tales, and winding them up with genuine Freudian guff.
In all it looks like the women are on thin ice. They may look around and see the emerging suburban world of the 1940s as something safe and sound, but masses of fears writhe beneath this picture.