Wednesday, August 13, 2014


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.

Louis Hayward (And Then There Were None) is a bit too off the rails as Stephen. Though he delivers some excellent scenery chewing and thrashes about madly on occasion, Lang seems determined to make him the protagonist without making him the least bit sympathetic or charismatic. There is the sense that writing about his crime helps him re-live it, giving the act of writing an erotic element. As with Scarlet Street and Secret Beyond the Door, there is a certain lurid sexuality that pervades the film. Emily’s assault is set in motion by the fact that her bathroom in the servant’s quarters is broken and she must use Marjorie’s tub. She also brazenly borrows a robe and perfume from her mistress, which is how Stephen encounters her on the stairs. Marjorie’s later surprise and denial that any pregnancy could be possible implies that not a whole lot is happening in the marital bed, though it’s soon easy to understand why.

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.

This flawed, though interesting film was made with Republic Pictures. Directors occasionally went here for more freedom and less meddling from producers, though Lang was frustrated by the censors yet again. He wanted the actress playing Emily to be a young black woman, highlighting some of the numerous American racial issues during the war years, but was met with abrupt, firm refusal. The obviously low budget shows, particularly where the set is concerned, though Lang made the best of this and emphasized the Gothic elements in the plot. For example, Stephen believes that two of his victims are ghosts, returned to haunt and torment him. To compliment this, avant-garde composer George Antheil, also responsible for the music of Dementia, crafted an eerie, excellent score.

House by the River comes recommended and is available on DVD and Youtube. Fans of Gothic horror and serial killer films will definitely want to seek this out, as will anyone else smitten with Lang’s American thrillers.

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