film-noir, doorway
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Familial Neurosis in ‘Never Open That Door’ Film-Noirs

The family is the source of neurosis, and any hint of an allegedly happy ending in these three film-noirs must happen over someone’s dead body.

Never Open That Door
Carlos Hugo Christensen
Flicker Alley
6 June 2024

Since his lonely death in 1968, American novelist and short story writer Cornell Woolrich’s reputation as one of the 20th Century’s key thriller writers has only increased. More films have been based on his output than any other noir writer – more than 40 – and home video keeps revealing more. The latest eye-opening example is Carlos Hugo Christensen’s Never Open That Door (No abres nunca esa puerta), a 1952 Argentine film-noir restored to dazzling clarity by Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive and presented in a Blu-ray/DVD combo from Flicker Alley.

We get three dramas for the price of one since Christensen purchased the rights to three short stories directly from Woolrich and shot them as an anthology film. The studio convinced the director to release the third story as a separate film-noir If I Should Die Before I Wake (Si muero antes de despertar), so they had two Woolrich-based hits on their hands. To complete the trilogy, the separate film is included as a bonus, scanned from the only known archival copy.

Film-Noir Never Open That Door

All three stories were adapted by Spanish playwright Alejandro Casona, photographed in sinuous and gorgeous high-contrast chiaroscuro by German refugee Pablo Tabernero, and designed in jaw-dropping detail by Spanish refugee Gori Muñoz. Sound and silence are used brilliantly. The results are never less than fabulous to the eye and ear, and there’s plenty for the brain.

Never Open That Door announces itself as an anthology by showing a picture of a door labeled as that between good and evil. On-screen titles implore us never to open it, but the film opens it for us as the door swings open to announce its two tales.

The first story is “Somebody’s on the Phone” (Alguien al telefono), based on Woolrich’s six-page story of the same name. The opening shot contrasts a glass phone booth’s modern technology with the African masks in the background. The masks have been appropriated as kitschy decor for a “Congo”-themed jazz club, with the band playing frantically on a raised stage before chic clientele. It’s not unlike postwar America’s Tiki trend of Polynesian idols and themes, and the US also had its share of trendy African masks, totems, and taboos.

Before we have time to process any of that, we see only the phone in the foreground and the masks in the background as a shadowy figure enters the booth and tries to place a call. Now the composition flips to the other side of the 180-degree line, and we observe dapper Raul (leading man Angel Magaña) realizing with distress that no one is answering his call.

Part of the teasing nature of Casona’s screenplay is that facts are doled out sparsely in their own good time, so it will take us a while to figure out that Raul must have been calling home and expected his sister to answer, but this is more information than viewers have at this point. For example, it’s unclear that his sister is his sister until well into the events and this ambiguity about their relationship factors into the viewer’s disorientation. Things aren’t spelled out, so the viewer’s confusion somewhat mirrors Raul’s.

When Raul returns to his table with a brittle, impatient blonde date (Diana de Córdoba) and another couple, he spots his beautiful blonde sister Luisa (Renée Dumas) across the room in a spotlight as though generating her own light. She conducts some assignation with a stranger (Nicolás Fregues) to whom she evidently owes money. When Raul goes home to their fabulous modern house stuffed with expensive bric-a-brac, from which their parents have been absent for months, Raul tries to get Luisa to confess what’s wrong, but she’s like a clam. She insists she’ll take care of things alone, and soon, he’s left to take care of things alone.

Remarkably, after a few bad things happen, neither the screenplay nor Woolrich’s story clarifies what’s been going on, and we’re left to surmise all kinds of scandalous and queasy possibilities. One thing clear from the mise-en-scène is that in the club, in the house, at the bank, and in all other locations, Raul is imprisoned by vertical or diagonal bars from shadows, window blinds, doors, grillwork, mirrors, even the horizontal lines of Luisa’s tight dress. The high-contrast photography forever shows Raul and others half in shadow.

As the ringing phone becomes an object of terror, we can conclude that he’ll never emerge from the darkness. He’s opened that door and passed through. In the bonus documentary on Woolrich and these adaptations, author Halley Sutton observes that although there’s a mundane conclusion to be drawn from Never Open That Door‘s ending, and that’s disturbing enough, there’s also a psychological dimension to the ringing phone.

I won’t air my spoiler of a theory, which I can’t prove is right, but I suspect others could jump to the same conclusions. I’ll observe only that one of the oddest details, as pointed out in commentary by film historian Guido Segal, is that a brother and sister, for some reason, have the same bank account.

In contrast to Italy’s carefree bourgeois genre of “white telephone films”, the phones in “Somebody’s on the Phone” are black, a color often used in Woolrich’s titles. When the story’s title is shown onscreen, we’re also told this is a story of fear (la angustia). As telephones were becoming a common middle-class appliance, their status as tools of terror, agony, fate, and ambiguity began to slip into dramas as diverse as Jean Cocteau‘s The Human Voice (La voix humaine, 1930) and Alfred Hitchcock‘s Dial M for Murder (1953).

The second story in Never Open That Door is identified as a tale of pain (la dolor), and it’s called “The Hummingbird Comes Home” (El pájaro cantor vuelve al hogar). It stars another popular matinee idol cast against type, Roberto Escalado, as Daniel. The show is stolen by Ilde Pirovano’s portrayal of his blind elderly mother, Mama Rosa.

The opening titles tell us that this story only requires sound and touch, but the filmmakers also try to convey it through sight. We quickly learn that Mama Rosa is perfectly at home without her vision, for her other senses are as sharp as Sherlock Holmes. She lives with a pretty young niece, Maria (Norma Giménez), and we know that Mama yearns for some word from her beloved son Daniel, who hasn’t written for years.

This set-up cross-cuts with a violent robbery and getaway in which many people get shot, and Mama and Maria hear about it on the radio. We suspect the worst, and it comes true. Daniel finally returns home, and it dawns on Mama and Maria that he’s one of the robbers along with his accomplice, Juan (Luis Otero).

Darkness, oxymoronically, is a visible theme. Mama Rosa lives in shades of it, so she doesn’t need lighting in a semi-dark house where the staircases achieve Expressionist grandeur. When Mama quietly decides to take action against her disappointing son, she has the fuses removed so “we’ll be equal”, and she goes about her mission with a terrifying, nail-biting bravery. This foreshadows a plot device in Wait Until Dark (1966), a play by Frederick Knott (author of Dial M for Murder), filmed with Audrey Hepburn, in which the blind heroine breaks all the lights to put herself on equal footing with a killer.

“The Hummingbird Comes Home” is a masterpiece of suspense that turns on a mother’s love for her son, just as sibling love in “Somebody’s on the Phone” is a prime motive. In both cases, an ordinary person may be driven to violence. This is a classic Woolrich theme, and any hint of an allegedly happy ending in either story must happen over someone’s dead body.

Film-Noir If I Should Die Before I Wake

If I Should Die Before I Wake tackles the Woolrich theme of a person who witnesses a murder or has information but can’t get anyone to believe it. This is especially frustrating when the witness is a child, as in another Woolrich story called “The Boy Cried Murder”, filmed by Ted Tetzlaff as The Window (1949). Where that was a reasonably simple if fraught child-in-danger scenario If I Should Die Before I Wake is a substantially darker and more complex tale.

The opening titles present fairy-tale characters on a model carousel before an expressive forest of twisted trees. We’re told that ancient tales of good vs. evil remain true in the modern world. Love must always be the weapon against evil, meaning only a child can kill a monster.

The child is Lucio Santana (Néstor Zavarce), a troublemaker who pays no attention in class and always gets in so much trouble and insubordination that he’s threatened with expulsion. His father (Floren Delbene) is a police inspector who expresses disappointment but also winks at his son’s excuse that grammar (specifically the subtlety of cases) is “for girls”. Lucio is the frenemy of Alicia (Marta Quintela), the smart girl who sits in front of him in class.

The first shocking development in If I Should Die Before I Wake is that, like Fritz Lang’s (1931), this is a story about a serial killer of little girls. We intuit this as Alicia blandly talks about a nice stranger who gives her candy. Unfortunately, she has sworn Lucio to an oath in God’s name that he’ll never reveal her secret until death, or he’ll be a “traitor”. This binding injunction, combined with his child’s aversion to being a “snitch” (another girlish thing), seals his mouth at a crucial moment.

A few years later, Lucio faces a similar trial with another friend, Julia (Maria A. Troncoso). As Lucio faces the dispiriting and horrifying fact that adult authority figures can’t be trusted, they are even hostile. Thus, he must draw upon his experience as an “incorrigible” rule-breaker. The qualities that get him in trouble cause him to rely on himself in a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel with buttons for breadcrumbs and a knife-wielding maniac (Homero Cárpena) for a witch. The morbid children’s prayer, which lends this film-noir its title, is repeated several times.

What’s so clammy, scary, and effective isn’t merely the danger-fraught suspense of If I Should Die Before I Wake‘s story – handled with terrible beauty – but the psychological burden on Lucio that causes him virtually to have a nervous breakdown. The source of his troubles isn’t only the danger. There is a continual battery of rules from every side about what it means to be “a man” and how a man is supposed to behave. Just like the rules laid down by authority, these gendered rules are exposed as mental and moral traps.

For example, when Raul tries to find a loophole in his oath of secrecy, his sympathetic mother (Blanca del Prado) reminds him of his father’s motto that a man who doesn’t keep his word isn’t a man. That’s the opposite of helpful, although there’s no way she can know this. She’s a good person, but she’s repeating patriarchal nonsense and instilling her son with it because this is easier than reflecting on nuance and context.

Later, Lucio risks expulsion because he “defends himself” by throwing himself into a fight with a boy who slurs his manhood (“Mariquita!”). While the combatants roll on the ground amid a circle of classmates, the excited Julia eggs him on and tells two younger boys, “That’s what you have to do to be a man!” He may have their approval, but Lucio gets in trouble with the school and his father, who has no time to listen and only expects his son to keep out of trouble.

Lucio never knows that his father lives under a burden of self-doubt and failure because all his superiors are younger than him in his stalled career. Lucio’s grandfather was also a policeman, and the father passes the burden of childhood insecurity to his son, citing himself for being “too soft” and blaming “the times”. The inherited psychological burden of “manhood” and its rules tie them together and should make them identify with each other.

All these toxic details about how to be a man and what’s for girls are exposed with such deftness by Christensen that they become the driving fabric of If I Should Die Before I Wake. It’s no surprise to learn in the bonus profile of his career that he was a closeted homosexual, not unlike Woolrich, with whose stories he felt such an affinity. Once again, in these tales, the family is more of a source of neurosis than security and validation.

This companion film-noir is presented as a bonus instead of a co-feature because it’s in rougher shape, with burned-in English titles that, at one point, translate the opposite of what somebody’s saying. Nevertheless, its dark brilliance comes through and shouldn’t be missed. The climax feels as terrifying as anything of its decade and bears comparison with Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955).

The studio was probably right to insist that If I Should Die Before I Wake be released separately. If the trilogy had been issued as a single film, all three tales’ accumulated tension and catharsis might have put audiences through too much of a wringer. By itself, the third story is almost unbearably dreadful and upsetting. True, it has the happiest ending, but wow, what we had to go through to get there.