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.