THE ZONE have my review of Fritz Lang’s classic psychological thriller Secret Behind the Door starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave.
Based upon Charles Perrault’s fable Bluebeard, Secret Behind the Door explores the process through which a couple get to know each other. After a whirlwind romance, Bennett’s character marries Redgrave’s secretive and intense architect. After a rudely interrupted honeymoon, Bennett’s character arrives at the architect’s home and finds him sharing it with two other women and a son from a previous marriage. As in the fable, Bennett’s character begins poking around in her husband’s background until she discovers something sinister.
Bluebeard is perhaps better known in its native France than it is in the Anglo-Saxon world. One reason for this is that it is one of those stories that paints women as a race of incessant and toxic meddlers whose refusal to follow simple male instructions result in the destruction of everything. Think of Else to Lohengrin. Think of Eve to Adam. Because of the story’s misogynistic roots, generations of feminist authors have been quick to reclaim the role of interfering spouse and cast it in a more positive and transformative light such as the one that bathes Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Neither misogynistic nor feminist, Lang’s adaptation of Silvia Richards’ screenplay presents Bennett’s character as a wonderfully ambiguous figure who ‘fixes’ her husband for reasons all of her own. However, while the characters are engaging and the plot is fascinating, what really grabbed me was Lang’s decision to use a voice over as the primary means of communicating inner states:
Watching Secret Beyond The Door and noticing Lang’s tendency to simply pause the action and linger on his actor’s faces while their voiceovers are delivered, I was struck by how little has changed in the way that directors communicate interiority. Indeed, while directors of Lang’s generation paused so that voiceovers can be delivered, contemporary directors simply pause and allow audiences to fill in their own voiceovers. Doubtless many art house films could be transformed by using these little pauses and gazings into the middle distance to deliver short voiceovers in which characters speak directly to the audience. Clearly the basic grammar of cinema has not evolved that much since the days of Lang, it is just that nowadays art house directors tend to outsource exposition to audience speculation.
Secret Behind the Door is a flawed gem and its arrival on region-free DVD is long overdue. This is a must for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers and an absolute necessity for anyone who loves Fritz Lang’s film noirs.
One of my greatest bugbears in fiction is the concept of the “well-drawn character”. If we wants to talk about a film in terms of its mis-en-scene or its shot selection then we can read books and treatises about such matters. Books filled with Eisenstein’s montages and Welles’ long takes. Similarly, if we want to talk about a book in terms of its narrative structure or its subtext then one can read Aristotle’s Poetics or the countless introductory guides to literary theory that fill the book shelves of people who really should be reading the original source material. These elements of fiction are well understood. Their subtleties catalogued. Their aesthetics understood. But what about the aesthetics of character construction? What distinguished a well-drawn character from a tissue-thin one-dimensional empty suit?
Presumably this area of aesthetic achievement is comparatively less well-travelled because, as humans, it should be obvious to us which characters are believable and which are not. We humans deal with each other quite a lot and so we presumably have a firm enough grasp of human psychology that we should recognise a character who is ‘off’ and unbelievable. Perhaps they behave in an erratic manner, perhaps they do not speak in a voice of their own, perhaps their actions do not follow from what we know of their character. In effect, we our ability to detect poorly drawn characters flows from the same place as our ability to read and interpret other people’s emotional states, the catalogue of theories, intuitions and received opinions that philosophers call Folk Psychology. However, some philosophers question the validity of folk psychology. They argue that most of our understanding of human behaviour is based on absurdly simplistic theories that are little better than superstitions. I share this doubt. This is why every act of characterisation strikes me as explicitly theoretical. Underpinned by all kinds of beliefs about the way humans work which may, in fact, be profoundly flawed or ludicrously simplistic.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie is a film that wears its Folk Psychological assumptions on its sleeve. It is a work of drama where the character arc of the main character is sketched not in bland generalities but in explicitly Psychoanalytical terms. The result is not only a fascinating character study, but also a meditation upon the moral status of psychoanalysis as an activity.
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It is a pleasure to return to Cinematic Vocabulary and kick off Polanski Week by looking at what I consider to be one of Polanski’s less appreciated films. While The Tenant (1976) is the darling of cinephiles and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is second only to Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) in terms of mainstream appeal, Repulsion is sometimes overlooked as an early work, sandwiched as it is between Polanski’s break through film Knife in the Water (1962) and his more famous Hollywood projects.
However, it is my contention that Repulsion is a substantial landmark on the the road of Polanski’s artistic development. The low-budget British Horror film allowed him not only to perfect some of the cinematic techniques that would feature prominently in his later works but also to tackle some of the themes dear to the generation of 1930s surrealist film-makers who clearly had quite an influence on Polanski’s thinking.
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