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.