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House By the River (1949) [Import]


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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: 26 reviews
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
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
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.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
beautifully photographed, typically downbeat but minor Lang Sept. 28 2009
By Muzzlehatch - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
Fritz Lang was the first director I ever fell in love with, probably 20 years ago. I've been slowly (very slowly) going through his whole filmography and I don't have too many left. This was number 23 (of 37 to date) and though it's not one of the better ones, it still offers plenty of Lang's typically despairing pleasures. Edward Cronjager's awesome heavily shadowed b&w photography lets us know immediately that we're in noir-ish territory (though the turn-of-the century coastal setting - gulf coast? never made explicit that I recall - isn't typical) as failing writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) has a little "accident" involving his new maid and must spend the rest of the movie covering up and trying to shift the blame for her disappearance on much stabler and saner brother John (Lee Bowman).

The suspense builds steadily, with a fine courtroom scene that's nicely underplayed, and for a while I though this might end up being one of Lang's greats, but the finish is disappointingly heavy-handed and obvious, though the laugh that escaped me almost made it worth it - an oh-I-can't-believe-it sort of thing. Jane Wyatt is beautiful as always but doesn't have enough to do; Hayward is the real star here though, progressing realistically from merely a self-absorbed heel to a real psychopath; I wonder why he didn't have more of a career? The sets are nicely done and while the film may not feel wholly at place in Southern Gothic territory, at least it doesn't seem like Los Angeles either. Great music by George Antheil. This Kino DVD is a pretty decent transfer.


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