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Gothic Film in the ‘40s: Doomed Romance and Murderous Melodrama

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Secret Beyond the Door (1947)

In many respects, the ‘40s were a strange time for horror films. With a few notable exceptions, like Le main du diable (1943) or Dead of Night (1945), the British and European nations avoided the genre thanks to the preoccupation of war. But that wasn’t the case with American cinema, which continued to churn out cheap, escapist fare in droves, ranging from comedies and musicals to horror films. In general though, genre efforts were comic or overtly campy; Universal, the country’s biggest producer of horror films, resorted primarily to sequels, remakes, and monster mash ups during the decade, or ludicrous low budget films centered on half-cocked mad scientists (roles often hoisted on a fading Bela Lugosi).

There are some exceptions: the emergence of grim-toned serial killer thrillers helmed by European emigres like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Ulmer’s Bluebeard (1944), Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945), or John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945); the series of expressionistic moody horror film produced by auteur Val Lewton, such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943); and a handful of strange outliers like the eerie She-Wolf of London (1946) or the totally off-the-rails Peter Lorre vehicle, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946).

Thanks to the emergence of film noir and a new emphasis on psychological themes within suspense films, horror’s sibling — arguably even its precursor — the Gothic, was also a prominent cinematic force during the decade. One of the biggest producers of Gothic cinema came from the literary genre’s parent country, England. Initially this was a way to present some horror tropes and darker subject matter at a time when genre films were embargoed by a country at war, but Hollywood was undoubtedly attempting to compete with Britain’s strong trend of Gothic cinema: classic films like Thorold Dickinson’s original Gaslight (1940); a series of brooding Gothic romances starring a homicidal-looking James Mason, like The Night Has Eyes (1942), The Man in Grey (1943), The Seventh Veil (1945), and Fanny by Gaslight (1944); David Lean’s two best films and possibly the greatest Dickens adaptations ever made, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948); and other excellent, yet forgotten literary adaptations like Uncle Silas (1947) and Queen of Spades (1949).

The American films, which not only responded to their British counterparts but helped shape the Gothic genre in their own right, tended towards three themes in particular (often combining them): doomed romance, dark family inheritances often connected to greed and madness, and the supernatural melodrama. Certainly, these film borrowed horror tropes, like the fear of the dark, nightmares, haunted houses, thick cobwebs, and fog-drenched cemeteries. The home was often set as the central location, a site of both domesticity and terror — speaking to the genre’s overall themes of social order, repressed sexuality, and death — and this location was of course of equal importance to horror films and the “woman’s film” of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Like the latter, these Gothic films often featured female protagonists and plots that revolved around a troubled romantic relationship or domestic turmoil.

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Wuthering Heights (1939)

Two of the earliest examples, and certainly two films that kicked off the wave of Gothic romance films in America, are also two of the genre’s most enduring classics: William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939) and Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Based on Emily Brontë’s novel of the same name (one of my favorites), Wyler and celebrated screenwriter Ben Hecht (with script input from director and writer John Huston) transformed Wuthering Heights from a tale of multigenerational doom and bitterness set on the unforgiving moors into a more streamlined romantic tragedy about the love affair between Cathy (Merle Oberon) and Heathcliffe (Laurence Olivier) that completely removes the conclusion that focuses on their children. In the film, the couple are effectively separated by social constraints, poverty, a harsh upbringing, and the fact that Cathy is forced to choose between her wild, adopted brother Heathcliffe and her debonair neighbor, Edgar Linton (David Niven).

Wuthering Heights is actually less Gothic than the films it inspired, primarily because of the fact that Hollywood neutered many of Brontë’s themes. In The History of British Literature on Film, 1895-2015, Greg Semenza and Bob Hasenfratz wrote, “Hecht and Wyler together manage to transfer the narrative from its original literary genre (Gothic romance) and embed it in a film genre (the Hollywood romance, which would evolve into the so-called ‘women’s films’ of the 1940s)… [To accomplish this,] Hecht and Wyler needed to remove or tone down elements of the macabre, the novel’s suggestions of necrophilia in chapter 29, and its portrayal of Heathcliffe as a kind of Miltonic Satan” (185).

This results in sort of watered down versions of Cathy — who is selfish and cruel as a general rule in the novel — and, in particular, Heathcliffe, whose brutish behavior includes physical violence, spousal abuse, and a drawn out, well-plotted revenge that becomes his sole reason for living. It is thus in a somewhat different — and arguably both more terrifying and more romantic — context that the novel’s Heathcliffe declares to a dying Cathy, “Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” (145).

Despite Hollywood’s intervention, the novel’s Gothic flavor was not scrubbed entirely and Wuthering Heights still includes themes of ghosts, haunting, and just the faintest touch of damnation, though it ends with a spectral reunion for Cathy and Heathcliffe, whose spirits set off together across the snow-covered moors. These elements of a studio meddling with a film’s source novel, doomed romance, and supernatural tones also appeared in the following year’s Rebecca, possibly the single most influential Gothic film from the period. This was actually Hitchcock’s first film on American shores after his emigration due to WWII, and his first major battle with a producer in the form of David O. Selznick.

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Rebecca (1940)

Based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, Rebecca marks the return of Laurence Olivier as brooding romantic hero Maxim de Winter, the love interest of an innocent young woman (Joan Fontaine) traveling through Europe as a paid companion. She and de Winter meet, fall in love, and are quickly married, though things take a dark turn when they move to his ancestral home in England, Manderlay, which is everywhere marked with the overwhelming presence of his former wife, Rebecca. The hostile housekeeper (Judith Anderson) is still obviously obsessed with her former mistress, Maxim begins to act strangely and has a few violent outbursts, and the new Mrs. de Winter begins to suspect that Rebecca’s death was the result of a homicidal act…

The wanton or mad wife was a feature not only of Rebecca, but of earlier Gothic fiction from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In the same way that Cathy of Wuthering Heights is an example of the feminine resistance to a claustrophobic social structure, Rebecca is a similar figure, made monstrous by her refusal to conform. The dark secret that Maxim’s new wife learns is that Rebecca was privately promiscuous, agreeing only to appear to be the perfect wife in public after de Winter already married her. She pretends she is pregnant with another man’s child and tries to goad her husband into murdering her, seemingly out of sheer spite, but it is revealed that she was dying of cancer.

A surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel, Rebecca presents the titular character’s death as a suicide, rather than a murder, thanks to the Production Code’s insistence that murderers had to be punished, contrary to the film’s apparent happy ending, and restricted the (now somewhat obvious) housekeeper’s lesbian infatuation for Rebecca. Despite these restrictions, Hitchcock managed to introduce some of the bold, controversial themes that would carry him through films like Marnie (1964). For Criterion, Robin Wood wrote, “it is in Rebecca that his unifying theme receives its first definitive statement: the masculinist drive to dominate, control, and (if necessary) punish women; the corresponding dread of powerful women, and especially of women who assert their sexual freedom, for what, above all, the male (in his position of dominant vulnerability, or vulnerable dominance) cannot tolerate is the sense that another male might be “better” than he was. Rebecca is killed because she defies the patriarchal order, the prohibition of infidelity.”

Wood also got to the crux of many of these early Gothic films (and the Romantic/romantic novels that inspired them) when he wrote, “The antagonism toward Maxim we feel today (in the aftermath of the Women’s Movement) is due at least in part to the casting of Olivier; without that antagonism something of the film’s continuing force and fascination would be weakened.” Heathcliffe and de Winter are similarly contradictory figures: romantic, but also repulsive, objects of love and fear in equal measures, they mirror the character type popularized in England by a young, brooding James Mason — an antagonistic, almost villainous (and sometimes actually so) male romantic lead — that would appear in a number of other titles throughout the decade.

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Rebecca (1940)

In “‘At Last I Can Tell It to Someone!’: Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s” for Cinema Journal, Diane Waldman wrote, “The plots of films like Rebecca, Suspicion, Gaslight, and their lesser-known counterparts like Undercurrent and Sleep My Love fall under the rubric of the Gothic designation: a young inexperienced woman meets a handsome older man to whom she is alternately attracted and repelled. After a whirlwind courtship (72 hours in Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door, two weeks is more typical), she marries him. After returning to the ancestral mansion of one of the pair, the heroine experiences a series of bizarre and uncanny incidents, open to ambiguous interpretation, revolving around the question of whether or not the Gothic male really loves her. She begins to suspect that he may be a murderer” (29-30).

As Waldman suggests, there are many films from the decade that fit into this type: notable examples include Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), where Joan Fontaine again stars as an innocent, wealthy young woman who marries an unscrupulous gambler (Cary Grant) who may be trying to kill her for her fortune; Robert Stevenson’s Jane Eyre (1943) yet again starred Fontaine as the innocent titular governess, who falls in love with her gloomy, yet charismatic employer, Mr. Rochester (Orson Welles); George Cukor’s remake of Gaslight (1944) starred Ingrid Bergman as a young singer driven slowly insane by her seemingly charming husband (Charles Boyer), who is only out to conceal a past crime; and so on.

Another interesting, somewhat unusual interpretations of this subgenre is Experiment Perilous (1944), helmed by a director also responsible for key film noir and horror titles such as Out of the Past, Cat People, and Curse of the Demon: Jacques Tourneur. Based on a novel by Margaret Carpenter and set in turn of the century New York, Experiment Perilous is a cross between Gothic melodrama and film noir and expands upon the loose plot of Gaslight, where a controlling husband (here played by Paul Lukas) is trying to drive his younger wife (the gorgeous Hedy Lamarr) insane. The film bucks the Gothic tradition of the ‘40s in the sense that the wife, Allida, is not the protagonist, but rather it is a psychiatrist, Dr. Bailey (George Brent). He encounters the couple because he befriended the husband’s sister (Olive Blakeney) on a train and when she passes away, he goes to pay his respects. While there, he he falls in love with Allida and refuses to believe her husband’s assertions that she is insane and must be kept prisoner in their home.

In some ways evocative of Hitchcock (a fateful train ride, a psychiatrist who falls in love with a patient and refuses to believe he or she is insane), Experiment Perilous is a neglected, curious film, and it’s interesting to imagine what it would have been if Cary Grant starred, as intended. It does mimic the elements of female paranoia found in films like Rebecca and Gaslight, in the sense that Allida believes she has a mysterious admirer and, as with the later Secret Beyond the Door, she’s tormented by the presence of a disturbed child; though Lamarr never plays to the level of hysteria usually found in this type of role and her performance is both understated and underrated.

Experiment Perilous

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Tourneur was an expert at playing with moral ambiguities, a quality certainly expressed in Experiment Perilous, and the decision to follow the psychiatrist, rather than the wife, makes this a compelling mystery. Like Laura, The Woman in the Window, Vertigo, and other films, the mesmerizing portrait of a beautiful woman is responsible for the protagonist becoming morally compromised, and for most of the running time it’s not quite clear if Bailey is acting from a rational, medical premise, or a wholly irrational one motivated by sexual desire. Rife with strange diary entries, disturbing letters, stories of madness, death, and psychological decay, and a torrid family history are at the heart of the delightfully titled Experiment Perilous. Like many films in the genre, it concludes with a spectacular sequence where the house itself is in a state of chaos, the most striking symbol of which is a series of exploding fish tanks.

But arguably the most Gothic of all these films — and certainly my favorite — is Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door (1947). On an adventure in Mexico, Celia (Joan Bennett), a young heiress, meets Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), a dashing architect. They have a whirlwind romance before marrying, but on their honeymoon, Mark is frustrated by Celia’s locked bedroom door and takes off in the middle of the night, allegedly for business. Things worsen when they move to his mansion in New England, where she is horrified to learn that she is his second wife, his first died mysteriously, and he has a very strange family, including an odd secretary who covers her face with a scarf after it was disfigured in a fire; he also has serious financial problems. During a welcoming party, Mark shows their friends his hobby, personally designed rooms in the house that mimic the settings of famous murders. Repulsed, Celia also learns that there is one locked room that Mark keeps secret. As his behavior becomes increasingly cold and disturbed she comes to fear that he killed the first Mrs. Lamphere and is planning to kill her, too.

A blend of “Bluebeard,” Rebecca, and Jane Eyre, Secret Beyond the Door is quite an odd film. Though it relies on some frustrating Freudian plot devices and has a number of script issues, there is something truly magical and eerie about it and it deserves as far more elevated reputation. Though this falls in with the “woman’s films” popular at the time, Bennett’s Celia is far removed from the sort of innocent, earnest, and vulnerable characters played by Fontaine. Lang, and his one-time protege, screenwriter Silvia Richards, acknowledge that she has flaws of her own, as well as the strength, perseverance, and sheer sexual desire to pursue Mark, despite his potential psychosis.

This was Joan Bennett’s fourth film with Fritz Lang – after titles like Man Hunt (1941), The Woman in the Window (1944), and Scarlet Street (1945) — and it was to be her last with the director. While her earlier characters were prostitutes, gold diggers, or arch-manipulators, Celia is more complex; she is essentially a spoiled heiress and socialite bored with her life of pleasure and looking to settle down, but used to getting her own way and not conforming to the needs of any particular man. (Gloria Grahame would go on to play slightly similar characters for Lang in films like The Big Heat and Human Desire.) In one of Celia’s introductory scenes, she’s witness to a deadly knife fight in a Mexican market. Instead of running in terror, she is clearly invigorated, if not openly aroused by the scene, despite the fact that a stray knife lands mere inches from her.

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Secret Beyond the Door (1947)

Like some of Lang’s other films with Bennett, much of this film is spent in or near beds and the bedroom. The hidden bedroom also provides a rich symbolic subtext, one tied in to Mark’s murder-themed rooms, the titular secret room (where his first wife died), and the burning of the house at the film’s conclusion. Due to the involvement of the Production Code, sex is only implied, but modern audiences may miss this. It is at least relatively clear that Mark and Celia’s powerful attraction is a blend of sex and violence, affection and neurosis. As with Rebecca and Jane Eyre, it is implied that the fire — the act of burning down the house and the memory of the former love (or in Jane Eyre’s case, the actual woman) — has cleansing properties that restore Mark to sanity. It is revealed that though he did not commit an actual murder, the guilt of his first wife’s death, brought on by a broken heart, has driven him to madness and obsession.

This really is a marvelous film, thanks Lang’s return to German expressionism blended with Gothic literary themes. There is some absolutely lovely cinematography from Stanley Cortez that prefigured his similar work on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. In particular, a woodland set – where Celia runs when she thinks Mark is going to murder her – is breathtaking, eerie, and nightmarish, and puts a marked emphasis on the fairy-tale influence. But the house is where the film really shines with lighting sources often reduced to candlelight, reflections in ornate mirrors, or the beam of a single flashlight. The camera absolutely worships Bennett, who is framed by long, dark hallways, foreboding corridors, and that staple of film noir, the winding staircase.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for the great article! Just love Joan Bennett! Do you remember her from “Dark Shadows”?

  2. It’s quite sad that the films since the 1950s have focused more on bloody gore and violence as a substitute for a strong story and character analysis. I have only recently discovered how to access youtube on my television…so I have been having a great time watching 30s and 40s “classics” in the gothic noir genre. My own and newly discovered gems have included Secret Beyond the Door, Woman in the Window, Alraune (subtitled), The Lost Moment, and of course Dead of Night (which I have seen before…but it’s been years!). Thanks for this website; I might also suggest if anyone uses youtube as I do…don’t hesitate to search for classic noir thrillers by typing in your favorite actor or actress’s name from that era. I have found some great films by searching under George Sanders, James Mason, Geraldine Fitzgerald, etc. Also, Eric Von Stroheim, Fritz Lang (producers’ names).. Happy viewing!

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