Fritz Lang, 1950
Starring: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick
Stephen, a struggling novelist, finds himself alone in his dark house by the river with Emily, his attractive blonde maid, a new member of the household. He attempts to assault her, but is forced to stifle her screaming when a neighbor passes by. He accidentally kills her and intrudes on his sensitive, gloomy brother, John, to help him dispose of the corpse. Stephen convinces John that it was an accident and if Emily’s fate came out, it would only hurt Marjorie, Stephen’s wife, who he claims is pregnant. John, who has feelings for Marjorie, agrees. But soon Emily’s body is found. John learns that Marjorie is not pregnant and gradually discovers Stephen’s deceit. Guilt begins to gnaw away at him as a trial is underway, though Stephen uses the publicity for his new novel, a torrid tale of murder. It soon becomes clear that it’s only a matter of time before one of the brothers points blame at the other…
Based on A. P. Herbert’s novel of the same name, this more obscure Fritz Lang film borrows from a number of genres, including the emerging serial killer film, the courtroom drama, Gothic thriller, and film noir. This would make an excellent double feature with Secret Beyond the Door, another Gothic-noir-melodrama about domestic murder, and the later While the City Sleeps, another of Lang’s serial killer films. Though this is nowhere near as stylish as the lovely Secret Beyond the Door, there are some effectively tense moments full of Gothic flavor. Cinematographer Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait) skillfully captures the darkness, isolation, and claustrophobia of the titular house by the river. Lang’s masterful (and quite experienced) use of German expressionism blends perfectly with the Hitchcockian-style suspense, which kicks off several minutes into the film and builds from there. There is nary a wasted scene, and the film is lean and relatively fast-paced.
House by the River’s biggest flaw is that it lacks narrative balance. It’s unclear who the central protagonist is and scenes are divided between Stephen, Marjorie, and John. There are no real stars in this film, though all three leads give solid performances. Jane Wyatt’s (Father Knows Best) wholesome Marjorie provides a contrast with her manipulative, secretive, and psychopathic husband, though she’s sadly little more than a set piece for much of the film. When it is later relieved that she’s in love with John, despite his limp, unhappy life, and possible guilt (she provides a contrast to his character, as well), this comes too late and only feels like a plot device. Plus, who could blame her? Stephen is a truly disturbing and disturbed character.
There are plenty of issues with the film’s script, namely the fact that there are no likable or charismatic characters. As with Scarlet Street, no one is what they seem and deceit is central to all interpersonal relationships. The script suffers because it revolves around flimsy evidence – a manuscript and a sack – though the film is less concerned with the identity of the murderer or the fact that he is going to be brought to justice to some point. Like many of Lang’s films, particularly from this period, House by the River is obsessed with questions of guilt and responsibility and – again, as with Secret Beyond the Door – with perversion and psychosis.