Truthfully I don’t know what to make of “The Secret Behind the Door.” I both love it and hate it. It can be as visually exciting as anything Lang filmed in the sound era, but it’s about twenty minutes too long and it leaves me squirming.
“The Secret Behind the Door” was a Diana Production–which I believe was a partnership between Lang and his leading lady Joan Bennett–and Lang is credited as being the producer, and therefore Master of His Domain, right? Right–except that it also credits Walter Wanger, then the husband of Bennett as overall producer. Consequently I have to wonder how many pairs of hands were stirring this particular Freudian stew.
I can almost picture Joan saying to Fritz, why don’t you do something for me like Hitchcock did for Bergman? Well, he did, and the result is shot through with echoes of “Rebecca” and “Spellbound.” But an echo is not the original big noise, merely a pale replay of it.
But I don’t want to imply that Lang was so beaten down by the Hollywood system that he ready to do anything he was told. Lang was far from washed up. “The House By the River” and “Clash By Night” were both in the offing and both were splendidly Langian affairs, although one is an American Gothic and the other, a slice of Kitchen Sink Realism. I think the real problem with “The Secret Behind the Door” was that Lang wasn’t permitted to be Lang. Instead of the dark fatalism that is Lang’s trademark, even when doing Technicolor westerns like “Rancho Notorious” or costume dramas like “Moonfleet” Lang was doing a job of work for his partners here. They wanted Hitchcock, he gave them cod-Hitchcock with occasional visual flashes of Lang. “The Secret Behind the Door” seems closer in spirit to “An American Guerilla in the Philippines,” another job of work, this time for Daryl Zanuck. That time out Lang was dishing up imitation John Ford in his “They Were Expendable” mode. Now Lang could certainly do by-the-numbers copies of other directors, but the results could never be anything original, at best as in “American Guerilla,” they could be competent copies. The trouble with “The Secret Behind the Door” is that, in the end, it’s not even an especially competent copy of Hitchcock’s brand of 1940s romanticism. It starts to become boring, something that Hitchcock could never be accused of. And it’s Instant Freud diagnosis and treatment of the hero’s neuroses was even more risible than the job employed by Bergman (with an assist from Salvador Dali) on Gregory Peck in “Spellbound.” Sometimes it’s best to ignore the promptings of your friends, even if they happen to be friends with money.