House By the River (1949) [Import]
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House By the River (1949)
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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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.
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.