House by the River

(USA - 1950)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker, Jody Gilbert
Genre: Crime/Thriller/Drama/Film-Noir
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Mel Dinelli from A.P. Herbert's novel
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Composer: George Antheil

Reeling from the unfortunate collapse of Diana Productions, the independent company Fritz Lang co-founded with Joan Bennett and her producer husband Walter Wanger, Lang was down to creating a Southern gothic thriller for low budget Republic Pictures. Though hampered by Mel Dinelli’s banal screenplay that concludes in a rushed and patently ridiculous manner, Lang managed to turn in a solid effort that, while not upper level Lang, certainly adds to his body of work. Fox subsequently “rescued” Lang for the cheesily titled bigger budget but more constricted and greatly inferior American Guerrilla in the Philippines (am I the only one picturing two American tourists attacked by a guerrilla?).

Fritz Lang plays the good bother/bad brother story as another of his explorations of conscience. Lang loves to delve into the way humans react to pressure, with films such as M and You Only Live Once showing the bad guy while Fury the wrongly accused. Thus, House by the River was a good opportunity for him to further his themes, as John Byrne (Lee Bowman) is eventually blamed for Stephen Byrne’s (Louis Hayward) crime. With his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) gone for the day, lustful Stephen tries to steal a kiss from maid Emily (Dorothy Patrick), only to meet bawling rejection. Whoever concocted the tagline “Enticing blonde beauty lures a lover's straying eyes ...” was the real hack writer of the proceedings. In any case, this shrieking is particularly troublesome because, as fate would have it, busybody neighbor Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker) approaches the house while Emily is still at a high note. Stephen succeeds in shutting her up, but by the time it’s safe to allow her to resume her ruckus, all the life has been choked out of her.

Protective John stumbles into Stephen’s mess, again being coerced into bailing his brother out of a jam by helping him toss the body into the nearby river. Lang foreshadows impermanence early on by showing a deer carcass flowing down the regularly flooded river. John isn’t so much naive and trusting as girlfriend Sylvia Sidney is in You Only Live Once, but is too good and too much of a sucker to put a stop to his scheming brother. John values family above all else. He could likely take Marjorie away from Stephen if he wanted, but he’d rather do the right thing, preferring to living alone suffering in silence than to deal with the guilt. As in Scarlet Street, everyone is tortured by loving someone they can’t have.

House by the River focuses on the post-crime effects. Stephen initially handles the situation perfectly, acting as if nothing has happened and being his usual self with the exception of the obvious tip off of being ridiculously protective of what he’s writing. He hones in on the comments about a writer dealing with their own experiences rather than any malicious insinuations about why Emily might no longer be around. He had penned a few uneventful works a few years earlier, but until Emily’s death gave him a topic for his latest “fiction” he’d been sitting around pretending to write to hide his block from Marjorie. Suddenly “growing up”, at least as a writer, Stephen in some ways is happier than ever due to his newfound - and predicted future - success with his first “real” literary work due to shamelessly milking Emily’s “disappearance” to drum up publicity for his books.

Stephen immediately lives it up at a dance the night of Emily’s death, something lonely John would have a hard time doing even if he was equally without conscience due to his bum leg. While Stephen’s newfound celebrity makes him the toast of the town, petty vindictive neighbors such as Miss Bantam (Jody Gilbert), jilted former maid who loved employer John unbeknownst to him, are quick to try to get John convicted despite almost no evidence in another of Lang’s takes on the insanity of the mob.

Most of House by the River’s quality comes from the manner in which cinematographer Edward Cronjager utilizes the house and river for tense and haunting effect. They exert a silent but disquieting presence over the proceedings. Lang combines the set bound expressionism of his early career with moody evocative riverside location shooting to cloak the film in an eerie supernatural atmosphere. Though the screenplay is pedestrian, the film is hardly pedantic because Lang inserts as many symbolic and creepy details as he can figure a way to incorporate.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *