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House By the River (1949) [Import]

Louis Hayward , Lee Bowman , Fritz Lang    NR (Not Rated)   DVD

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Virtually unseeable for half a century, House by the River, the rarest of Fritz Lang's American films, proves to be an atmospheric serving of Southern Gothic with style and perversity to burn. This is a happy surprise, given that the film was made at a low point in Lang's career, at a Poverty Row studio, with a low-wattage cast. Louis Hayward--whose dark, spoiled good looks and insinuating smile suggest Orson Welles' tawdry evil twin--plays an effete author in a small 19th-century town. One hot, lazy afternoon he's tempted (in a brilliantly directed scene) by thoughts of the comely maid soaking in his upstairs bathroom. There follows an awkward pass, a hand over her mouth, and suddenly he finds himself an accidental murderer. With a dead body to get rid of, living by a river comes in handy. But on this river, secrets have a way of returning with the tide.

The script by Mel Dinelli (who had just written the trim 1949 thriller The Window) ably milks the suspense, and there's a creepy moonlit search by rowboat for the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't corpse. The failed novelist, beginning to relish his guilt, acquires fresh inspiration as a writer and also becomes a cagy manipulator of other people, notably the wife (Jane Wyatt) who doesn't know what he's done, and the crippled brother (Lee Bowman) who does. Making a virtue of production resources only slightly upscale of Edgar G. Ulmer, Lang turns the titular domicile into an Expressionist hothouse where lace curtains yield a web of shadows, potted plants throw jagged black spears across high-key faces, and the breeze from the river is anything but fresh. Mastered from British archival materials, the DVD gleams like a cutlery-store window. --Richard T. Jameson


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  24 reviews
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars HOUSE OF EVIL..... Nov. 25 2005
By Mark Norvell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD
Moody, brooding period Gothic thriller about a deranged writer (Louis Hayward) who murders his wife's maid (as she's rejecting his advances) and forces his brother (Lee Bowman) to help him dispose of the body. The writer's big gloomy mansion sits by a rolling river and there the brothers toss the body. Blackmail and guilt keep the brother quiet...for a while. Then the writer's frustrated career takes off---with a murder tale. Fritz Lang does wonders with a low budget and an excellent cast. This is a very dark and morbid story based on the novel by A.P.Herbert. Shot in gloomy b&w, the film captures the flavor of a small river town around the turn of the century. Hayward is excellent as the insane writer and Bowman is quietly stoic as his bachelor brother. Jane Wyatt (the mom in "Father Knows Best") is good as Hayward's beautiful, long-suffering wife. The supporting cast is fun...Bowman's big, nagging housekeeper Mrs.Bantam, Dorothy Patrick as Hayward's worldly wise neighbor and, briefly, a young giddy Kathleen Freeman. Many offbeat Lang touches flourish the film throughout and there are some truly eerie scenes. Kino's DVD print is mostly good but dark and there is still some speckling and minor scratches. But, considering the rarity of "House By the River", this is a small complaint. Kino is to be commended for salvaging this goodie. Fans of film noir and Gothic thrillers should enjoy this. Very enjoyable.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A much underrated psychological drama Dec 18 2005
By Barbara Underwood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
This is a thrilling crime drama made in 1949, and is one of the many films directed by Fritz Lang who was one of Germany's foremost filmmakers in the silent 1920s era before going to the US in the early 30s. In Lang's very capable and experienced hands, this low budget melodrama becomes quite a high-class drama with convincing characters and psychological suspense which is still exciting and entertaining viewing over half a century later. Lang's use of strong light and shadow contrasts add intensity and mood to many scenes, and his fine attention to detail further enhances the viewer's appreciation of the story and characters. These aspects, along with a fine script (based on a novel) allowed Lang to really bring out the nature of each character which, for me, is the highlight of this film. First there is the contrast between two brothers: one is a struggling novelist whose lust for the housemaid leads to her accidental death, which he then attempts to cover up with the help of his innocent and good-natured brother. Louis Hayward plays the role of Stephen Byrne superbly as the character becomes even more vile, twisted and ruthless, thinking he can get away with murder and even cash in on the housemaid's mysterious disappearance and death. Right from the start, the viewer is already repulsed by Stephen Byrne, but drawn in sympathy to the morally upright brother, John, and Stephen's unsuspecting, loving wife, played wonderfully by Jane Wyatt. Apart from this outstanding trio, I also enjoyed the character of John's gossipy and nagging housemaid, and found the pace, timing and unfolding of the story perfect in every aspect. The picture quality, while black & white, is nice and clear, and the sound is also good on this DVD, making it overall very enjoyable viewing for anyone who likes a good psychological crime drama. There is also a brief interview with the French producer Pierre Rissient, to whom credit is due for making "House by the River" available again, and there are also some colour stills from the film as bonus features on the DVD, both of which I also enjoyed.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fritz Lang Film With Style And Technique Dec 30 2005
By C. O. DeRiemer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD
If nothing else, House By The River establishes that a first-rate director can still make an interesting but second-rate film. There are so many elements of style and technique in this movie that make it worth watching, yet there's not much you're left with afterwards.

Sometime before the turn of the century, Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) and his wife, Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), live in a comfortable house next to a river in a small town. Byrne thinks of himself as a writer, but everything he writes is rejected. He's charming, selfish and easily manipulates his brother, John (Lee Bowman), a quiet, successful businessman who walks with a limp and who deeply loves Marjorie. John even turned over most of his share of an inheritance to Stephen so that Marjorie and Stephen could live comfortably while Stephen wrote. One day while Stephen's wife is away, Stephen attempts to kiss their attractive housemaid after she has bathed. She resists and screams. Just then someone appears at the front door. Almost without realizing what he's doing, he strangles the maid in a panic to keep her quiet. The man at the door turns out to be John, and Stephen convinces him to help dispose of the body by placing it in a sack and throwing it in the river. But the river has a nasty habit, because of the tides, of bringing things back up.

While Stephen becomes energized, John is guilt-ridden. Stephen obsessively searches the banks of the river to find the sack with the decaying corpse, afraid it might show up on the tide. When the maid's body is eventually discovered, circumstantial evidence points to John as the killer, not Stephen. Stephen gradually and carefully begins to point more evidence toward John. As he does so, he writes more confidently. He begins to write the story of what happened, of a death on the river. He begins to denigrate Marjorie. He becomes confident and dangerous. The ending is ironic and just.

So what's not to like in this Gothic creep show? For starters, none of the characters except Stephen are particularly interesting. Partly this is because of the story; partly because the actors are not strong. Jane Wyatt's Marjorie Byrne is so unfailingly sympathetic and understanding it's a wonder she wasn't strangled instead of the maid. Lee Bowman was a reliable journeyman actor, but little more. Louis Hayward could be a great swashbuckler and, in my view, was a good actor when he had quieter roles. When he went for evil, however, I think he tended to overplay his hand. Second, the plot itself is not all that engrossing...man kills woman, man blames another, man becomes unhinged...and retribution happens. There are no surprises. Third, the music by George Antheil is even more melodramatic than the last half of the movie. Whenever a dramatic moment occurs, Antheil's score punches it home unmercifully.

And what's to like? First, the pacing. Lang keeps things moving, and he doesn't let things get dull. Second, the photography. This is a great-looking Hollywood Gothic production. Most of the movie takes place either in Stephen Byrne's home, full of dark wood, deep shadows, candles, heavy furniture and antimacassars, or on the river, full of more dark shadows, with fallen trees and decaying roots, with overhanging branches ready to snag the unwary. We see a bloated dead cow come in and out with the tide. Third, the stylistic flourishes that catch your eye and are just different and subtle enough to be uneasy. After Byrne strangles the maid and hears the knock on the door, he scuttles into deep shadows, but for a moment finds one wrist entangled in the sash of the dead woman's dressing gown. In Stephen Byrne's imagination the bright reflection from the back of a hand mirror turns into a twisting fish from the river. The judge at the inquest, a severe-looking middle-aged man, wears a pair of spectacles with round lenses. One of the lenses is black, and is not commented on. At the top of the stairs in Byrne's home, deep in shadow, suddenly some drapes billow out and seem to have a life of their own. Fourth, there is the character of Stephen Byrne himself. The murder seems to set him free, but in ways that are unhinged. "I was always afraid as a child," Stephen tries to explain to John, before he tries to kill him. "I didn't have the courage to do things. I was afraid of people...what they might say and think. Maybe that's why my writing wasn't good. I'm not afraid anymore. I've written something good...because it's real." Stephen Byrne is an interesting villain.

Even with all this, Fritz Lang stated he thought little of the movie. I think it's a workmanlike job, worth watching and perhaps better than Lang thought it was.

The movie has it's share of scratches here and there, but on balance it's in very good shape. The one extra is a brief interview with a French cineaste, a friend of Lang's, who explains why he thinks the movie is far better than Lang thought it was.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars HOUSE BY THE RIVER Oct. 5 2005
By Stephen M. Leiker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
With all the surgings of film noir releases coming out this past year to satisfy all of us to a style and class all their own, and none of them unworthy of purchasing I might add, we have repeatedly been noticing the name of Fritz Lang and by no means unwarranted. Here is another example of his work for your pleasure.
Thick with atmosphere, this is a tale of evil and deception and not to be missed by fans of Louis Hayward.

Louis Hayward (1909-1985) was married to Ida Lupino in the 40's and played the Saint, yep, the SAINT, in the early 50's.

There's some great "Fritz Lang" touches to this little oddity and I think it's worth a look and I believe a keeper.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Trouble with Emily . . . March 6 2009
By Van T. Roberts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
Although director Fritz Lang's atmospheric exercise in Southern gothic "House by the River" doesn't rank as one of his major films, such as "M," "Metropolis," "Fury," or "The Big Heat," this morbid Victorian melodrama about murder most foul contains enough of his characteristic themes to make it rewarding for people who fancy his films. Several reasons account for its lackluster stature. First, Republic Studios produced and released "House by the River" and Republic wasn't a prominent studio like MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, or Twentieth Century Fox, though great directors such as Orson Welles and John Ford had made pictures at Republic. Second, the talent is strictly second tier. Louis Hayward never achieved the stardom of earlier Lang stars, such as Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Ray Milland, and Walter Pidgeon. Nevertheless, Hayward acquits himself splendidly in the role of a treacherous murderer who has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to save his neck, even if it means shifting the blame to his brother. The remainder of the cast is serviceable, except for Jody Gilbert who plays a fatuous housekeeper to the protagonist's brother. Still, nobody can top the wicked Hayward whose character goes from one extreme, sniveling fear at the thought of being arrested to obnoxious egotism.

"House by the River" is confined largely to studio sets. First, the murder occurs in the protagonist's dimly lighted mansion. Second, some scenes unfold in his crippled brother's house--one room. Third, the courtroom is the setting for an inquest. Fourth, the protagonist and his brother ply the river in a boat in long shots of an actual river and a studio tank for the closer shots. Fifth, some scenes transpire on the grounds of the mansion and on a nearby dock. All in all, "House by the River" is appropriately claustrophobic. The river takes on an eerie character of its own, especially the jumping fish that preys on the protagonist's paranoia. Despite its modest surrounding, Lang and his cinematographer do an excellent job of conveying information about the various characters. The imagery has a haunting quality that indicates that Lang was a master of crime movies, even though he labored under less than stellar conditions. Although the melodrama is conventional in every sense of the word, Lang's camerawork and the mise-en-scene that he evokes is far from ordinary. He does a terrific job of depicting suspicion, murder, paranoia, and the toll that gossip takes on an individual.

The problem with "House by the River" is that you know what is going to happen for the most part because Hollywood movies of the 1950s always punished the murderer. In other words, crime never paid and the villains got their comeuppance. Scenarist Mel Dinelli derived his screenplay from A. P. Herbert's novel. Lang and he cultivate a modicum of suspense, but not enough to have you wringing your hands. Actually, it is fun--in a perverse way--to watch the
unscrupulous Hayward tries to get away with his crime, but like previous Lang murderers, he is so warped that he can never escape the consequences of his acts.

A middling crime novelist, Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward of "Anthony Adverse") murders his wife's maid, Emily (Dorothy Patrick of "Follow Me Quietly"), by accident. Stephen accosts her as she descends the stair after bathing in his wife's bathroom and wearing her perfume and tries to kiss her. It seems that Stephen had a drink and looked up to see a pair of curvaceous thighs coming down the stairs and couldn't control himself. Emily deflects his lustful advances, screams when he refuses to let her pass, and keeps on screaming irrationally until he strangles her to death. Stephen is distracted by the appearance of a nosy next door neighbor, Mrs. Ambrose (Anne Shoemaker of "They Won't Forget"), and assures Emily that he will release her if she only shuts up. He is too worried about what Mrs. Ambrose will tell the community that he doesn't realize his own strength. Tragically, Emily doesn't stop screaming and Stephen kills her with his bare hands. No sooner has Stephen murdered her than sometime comes knocking at his door. Stephen cowers near the corpse hoping that the individual at the door will go away. Just when he thinks this person has left, the individual surprises Stephen and enters by the back door. Stephen is relieved when he realizes that it is only his crippled brother John (Lee Bowman of "Bataan") who walks with a limp and earns his living as an accountant. Stephen convinces John not to go the police because he fears that the authorities won't believe his story. Initially, Stephen lies to John and tells him that Emily fell down the stairs. John spots the marks on Emily's throat and knows that she has been strangled. Against his best instincts, John decides to aid and abet Stephen. It seems that John has helped Stephen out of other jams. Just when John decides to change his mind, Stephen lies that his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) is going to have a baby. Reluctantly, John helps Stephen dispose of the body in the river. Earlier, in the first scenes, Mrs. Ambrose complained that the currents of the river conveyed hideous sites. Lang foreshadows the role that the river will play in Stephen's future. Just when he thinks that he is free and clear, here comes Mrs. Ambrose complaining again about the flotsam in the river. John is especially terrified because he learns to his chagrin that the sack that they stashed Emily in has his name stenciled on it.

Anyway, Stephen and John dispose of Emily's body in the river, but the body comes back on them like everything else. John's guilty conscience gets the best of him and his nosy housekeeper, Miss Bantam (Jody Gilbert of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"), suggests that his erratic behavior after Emily's mysterious disappearance is proof that he had something to do with her death. Meanwhile, Stephen unravels and tries to kill his own brother and implicate him for Emily's death. The authorities never catch up with Stephen. His paranoia proves his undoing in a wild comeuppance that has him strangling himself in a curtain that he believes his Emily. As he did in "Fury," Lang uses public opinion generated by gossip to condemn an essentially innocent but misguided character. Good performances, good atmosphere, and Lang's sure hand at the helm make this melodrama better than a lesser director would have made it. While it isn't a comedy, "House by the River" seems to foreshadow "The Trouble with Harry," the Hitchcock movie about a corpse that keeps showing up and driving people crazy.

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