‘I remember, long ago I read a book that told the meaning of dreams. It said that if a girl dreams of a boat or a ship she will reach a safe harbor. But if she dreams of daffodils, she is in great danger.’
Delivered by Joan Bennett in a low, velvety voice capable of turning balderdash into portent, those opening lines, from Secret beyond the Door, are the stuff of romance. If you are otherwise inclined, and not amenable to gothic excess, they might strike you as stuff and nonsense. And yet, whether you are buying it or not, what you are getting is not simply dreaming but rationalising. What you are getting is a man’s idea of family romance, packaged as what has been termed ‘ gothic romance film.’ Secret beyond the Door is a ‘women’s picture’ that frames a woman’s perspective so shrewdly that female audiences might believe they are the subject.
Just wherein lies the danger of daffodils? Not since Katherine Hepburn got to utter once more, quite out of context but now for posterity, that much derided declaration about the strangeness of ‘calla lilies’ did florid inconsequence have such an impact, the mystery surrounding ‘Rosebud’ excepting.
There is only one other mention of daffodils in Secret beyond the Door, which has a rather less varied flora than Ophelia got to monologise about in Hamlet, shortly before drowning, even though lilacs play a prominent role. Yes, as Celia Lamphere discovers, ‘lilacs have something to do with it.’
‘[E]verything in romance seems potentially meaningful because its conventions evoke that stage of development where everything is perhaps meaningful,’ Anne Williams writes in Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (1995). The opening voiceover sets us up for the kind of dreamworld you might expect from Frank Borzage, not from Fritz Lang, even though being Bluebeard’s wife, whatever the headcount, is no Seventh Heaven.
‘Like the Freudian uncanny,’ Williams says of the literary Gothic, ‘the conventions of romance reinstate primitive, pre-Symbolic modes of significance.’ Natalie Schafer’s comic relief aside, that fairy tale mood of romance is sustained in Secret beyond the Door until Celia exists, presumably murdered, and we learn that what we were being told, and what she gets to tell us, is not the story of Celia Lamphere but the story of her husband, the Bluebeard she, according to whatever logic there is in this post-war Hollywood fantasy, is expected to cure.
Daffodils belong, of course, to the genus ‘narcissus’ – and, not to soft-pedal matters, Celia’s husband is a narcissist preoccupied with the image he created for himself. Unlike Ophelia, he is saved from drowning.
In Secret beyond the Door, gothic romance meets psychoanalysis, and Hollywood’s idea of a woman’s picture is revealed to be a psychological melodrama about the psyche of the emasculated male. No doubt, men could relate to this picture, as they were reassured that what ailed them was not the trauma of war but the threat of being usurped by the women who were expected to wait for them once the fighting, at the front, at least, was over.
[T]he female protagonist tends to be both victim and investigator,’ Jerrold E. Hogle writes in the Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (2002), citing as examples the ‘1940s cycle of “paranoid woman’s films” (e.g., Rebecca or Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door ),’ films, he claims, in which ‘a wife invariably fears that her husband is planning to kill her.’ Yet despite Celia’s wedding day jiggers – ‘Suddenly I’m afraid. I’m marrying a stranger, a man I don’t know at all’ – this does not describe the narrative that becomes central.
Celia Lamphere remains in control for most of the story – at one point, she even offers to carry her new if frayed husband over the threshold – until she collapses in the fire set, by another woman, to her husband’s extravagant collection of felicitous ‘murder rooms.’ Celia’s role is to cure the man who might kill her. She is his nurse, loving to the end even if it is the ending he, driven by an idée fixe, has in mind for her.
What Celia has to do – according to the perverse logic of Secret beyond the Door – is to sacrifice herself so that he may gain control of his life, which is also hers. ‘[W]hereas the noir protagonist, and hence the subject of paranoia, is male, in the female Gothic paranoia is feminized,’ Hogle argues. In Secret beyond the Door, which defies genre classification, the husband-killer is ‘feminised,’ a man dominated throughout his life by women, and his wife needs to surrender control – even at the risk of her life – to restore the manhood as Hollywood defines it.
On the surface of it, narratives like Secret beyond the Door improve on gothic romance films such as Gaslight, Suspicion, Experiment Perilous or Sleep, My Love, in which women are tormented by the thought, justified or not, that the men to which they are married may not be the men they thought they wed. However, when post-war films present us with stronger women – even professionals such as Ingrid Bergman’s character in Spellbound – those women only get to play doctor to their male patients if they are prepared to turn nurse once the treatment they administer is successful. Scheherazade got a better deal.
The true secret beyond the door is that men hold the key, even though, in the 1940s, women are given the (wax) impression that they have temporary access to the corridors of power in Bluebeard’s patriarchal mansion. After all, the book that once told Celia the meaning of dreams – and that promises a ‘girl’ that she ‘will reach a safe harbor’ when her supposed dreamboat comes in – was written by a heterosexual male.