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The Red House

23 May

“Did you ever run away from a scream? You can’t…it will follow you through the woods…it will follow you all your life!”

Last time, I looked at a movie that grafted film noir tropes onto a western story and setting. To the purist, noir really ought to be set in a contemporary, urban location, but there are always examples that prove the exception to the rule. Delmer Daves’ The Red House (1947) has its characters battling their demons in a superficially wholesome and clean rural environment, but it does take place in modern times. The tale also imports some of the elements and trappings of the ghost story, largely for the sake of atmosphere and to create a oneiric quality. However, this is no supernatural affair and the only phantoms on view are those locked away in the subconscious mind.

Everything revolves around the reclusive Morgan family: Pete (Edward G Robinson), his sister Ellen (Judith Anderson) and the girl they have adopted, Meg (Allene Roberts). Their self-imposed seclusion has given rise to rumours and wild conjecture about what goes on in their private world. As viewers, we gain entry to this odd household via a young boy, Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), who has been hired to help out with the farm chores. Our first impressions of the Morgans, especially Pete, are positive, and the overall feeling is that this is a simple, kindly family interested only in minding their own business and not overly concerned about the opinions of others. Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent, almost imperceptible at first, that all is not well. Gradually, it becomes apparent that this Garden of Eden houses its own serpent, lurking deep in the shadows of the past and awaiting the opportunity to uncoil itself and strike at the present. The trigger is Nath’s arrival and the refreshing sense of openness that his presence introduces into the musty Morgan home. This impacts most noticeably on Meg, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood and eager to sweep away the cobwebs of superstition woven around her. The root of the mystery and the doom-laden atmosphere is the Red House of the title. Pete’s ominous warnings to Nath to avoid the forest at night and his allusions to the menace emanating from the house within don’t have their intended effect. Nath is a young man brimming with self-confidence and Pete’s urgings, while building up the mythic stature of the Red House, serve only to stir his contempt for what he sees as mere old wives tales. The upshot of all this is a growing determination on Nath’s part, aided by Meg and his girlfriend Tibby (Julie London), to find the house and crack its secret. Yet, the deeper the young people penetrate into the forbidding woods and the closer they come to discovering the elusive house, the more pronounced Pete’s paranoia and desperation become. It’s painfully obvious that we’re not being confronted with just the foolish ramblings of a hick farmer, but rather some dark and shameful event in the past that cannot and will not remain buried.

Delmer Daves took on both the directing and writing duties (although IMDB claims Albert Maltz was also involved) for The Red House so much of what appears on-screen is down to his efforts. The whole film builds slowly and relentlessly towards the solution of the central mystery and, in terms of pacing, rarely puts a foot wrong. The early stages paint a picture of idyllic rural life, with only the odd hint of something unpleasant slumbering below the surface. The first discernible cracks appear when Nath decides to defy Pete’s melodramatic pleas to avoid the woods and the horrors he claims they hide. Daves’ direction, Bert Glennon’s photography and Miklos Rozsa’s lush, haunting score all combine to glorious effect in the sequence that sees Nath stumbling through the woodland in the midst of a gale. What looked like a peaceful, untroubled paradise by day is transformed into a sinister and menacing jungle by night. The howling wind, the groping branches and the darkness all contribute to the creation a nightmarish landscape that threatens to take possession of the boy. Throughout the film Daves and Glennon draw attention to the contrast between the bright cheerfulness of the days where youthful optimism and hope hold sway, and the gloomy nights when the despair of the older generation casts its long shadow. In the last third, the pace quickens, the visuals darken and the revelations come thick and fast. The result is a powerfully affecting climax that offers excitement, tension, revulsion, and tugs a little at your heart. The ending itself, which emphasises the idea that there’s no escaping the past, is both moving and apt.

Edward G Robinson came to his part on the back of some sterling work for Billy Wilder, Orson Welles and Fritz Lang. I reckon he was at the peak of his powers at this time, and his role as Pete Morgan is a further illustration of his versatility. His time at Warners may have made him famous, but some of his best and most memorable work was done elsewhere. His turn as the lovesick loser in Lang’s Scarlet Street has justifiably earned many plaudits, and I feel his performance in The Red House makes for a nice companion piece. It’s a complex role that calls for a subtle touch to convincingly achieve the transition from the avuncular figure at the beginning to the guilt crazed shell of a man he becomes by the end. He got some fine support in the shape of Judith Anderson, exercising great restraint as the sister who has repressed and subordinated her own desires to maintain the illusion of a united family – there’s a touching moment where we see her stealing a glance onto the porch at the man whose love she spurned, and thus condemned herself to a life of lonely spinsterhood for the sake of her brother. Julie London and Rory Calhoun both had interesting parts too, as good for nothing wasters, and they seemed to have a bit of chemistry in their scenes together. That’s more than I can say for Lon McCallister and Allene Roberts, who never convince as a couple of burgeoning sweethearts. Individually though, they weren’t bad; McCallister had the right kind of cocksure quality for a young man trying to prove himself, and Roberts managed a nice line in wistful confusion and frustration that befitted a girl brought up in such a murky and secretive household.

The Red House is one of those films that seems to have been a staple of the PD market for as long as I can remember, regularly turning up from a variety of distributors in generally rotten transfers. Until recently, the best edition available was the one included on the Edward G Robinson double feature from VCI, although that too displayed problems such as interlacing and a mediocre soundtrack. Last month, the film was released as a region-free DVD/Blu-ray combi by HD Cinema Classics, and it’s the best I’ve seen the film looking and sounding. However, it’s not a perfect release: the DNR has been liberally applied to achieve a smoother look and the brightness has been boosted too. While this is far from ideal, it has to be said that even this digitally manipulated image is streets ahead of what was previously available. The new release also features a commentary track with William Hare and a before-and-after restoration comparison. Bearing in mind the PD status of the film, this is likely to be about the best we’re going to see. The movie is a great piece of rural noir, a slow-burning melodrama that’s visually impressive and emotionally involving. I guess that the unsatisfactory condition of previous editions of The Red House have contributed to its not getting the attention or respect it deserves, but it’s a wonderful and neglected example of film noir for all that. The excellent performances of Robinson and Anderson, and the moody, assured direction of Daves earns it a solid recommendation from this viewer.

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21 responses to “The Red House

  1. Randy Johnson

    May 23, 2012 at 7:44 am

    Interesting post. THE RED HOUSE looks like one i need to find. I’ve posted on several Edward G. Robinson films myself.

    I find myself drawn mostly these days to films from the fifties or earlier, rarely watching much newer(though I do have a weakness for spaghetti westerns and superhero movies). Weird combo, right? I’m a child of my era I suppose.

    My cable package carries no premium movie channels. I once had them and realized that, while I watched them often, there was rarely anything(a couple a month) I really sought out. Mostly I keep a check on TURNER CLASSICS and some local channels that run a lot of older films.i

     
    • Colin

      May 23, 2012 at 7:49 am

      Hi Randy. If you like Robinson’s work then The Red House is definitely worthwhile. If you’re not too bothered about picture quality it’s very easy to find.

      I must check out your Robinson pieces.

       
  2. surroundedbyimbeciles

    May 23, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Sometimes I think posters are the best part of old movies. This one is great.

     
    • Colin

      May 23, 2012 at 8:56 pm

      Yes, the poster for The Red House has a wonderfully haunting quality, doesn’t it? It really suits the movie.

       
  3. Cavershamragu

    May 23, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    I really think I’ll have to get the Blu-ray Colin after such a strong review. I’ve had a really rubbish PD disc on my shelf for years and every time I get it out I put it away after a couple of minutes in sheer irritation! I’m a big fan of Daves as a director and agree with you that he remains largely underrated, so really want to see it as it’s about the only one of his films I have not managed to catch up with. I am however familiar with the music suite recorded by Charles Gerhardt for his Classic Film Scores album devoted to Rozsa and I always thought it was one of the composer’s finest.

     
    • Colin

      May 23, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      Hi Sergio. I can’t say I’m displeased with the new Blu-ray. It’s not perfect, as I said, but it does make watching the film a much more enjoyable experience. And it’s reasonably priced too. No regrets here.

      I think The Red House is one of Daves’ best movies, and the fact that it’s not been given more attention is surely related to the poor quality of the prints available.

      Rozsa’s score is a beauty, reminiscent at times of his work for Hitchcock. Another big plus for the picture.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 23, 2012 at 9:42 pm

        Sounds great – really good review Colin, made we want to go and see the film and then read it again – which I will definitely do. It suddenly struck me how odd it was that I’d even seen such comparatively daft works of Daves’ like PARRISH and YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE but managed to not catch up with this purely, as you say, due to the shoddy prints in circulation. I shall report back …

         
        • Colin

          May 23, 2012 at 9:48 pm

          Yeah, I’d love to hear what you make of it when you get round to it.
          I can be reasonably tolerant of less than perfect prints, but most previous editions of The Red House really stretched my endurance. The situation is even more frustrating when one considers it’s one of the strongest efforts by a very classy director.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            May 25, 2012 at 8:41 am

            Are the images in your post from the Blu-ray incidentally?

             
            • Colin

              May 25, 2012 at 8:47 am

              Ah, I should have mentioned that in the review. No, I can’t do Blu-ray screencaps as I don’t have a BD drive for the computer. I took the images from the DVD that accompanies the BD.

               
  4. Rod Croft

    May 25, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    My first introduction to “The Red House” was on a record that I collected many years ago – mainly because it offered concert versions of Miklos Rozsa’s scores for Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” as well as “Quo Vadis”. “The Red House” was a kind of afterthought on the disc, but attracted my attention with its interesting themes. I managed to see the film on TV many years later and have a poor DVD copy of which I have only been able to watch for the first 20 minutes or so, before giving up. Your advice of a restored copy of “The Red House” is welcomed news.

    I share Randy’s preference for films of the fifties and earlier, perhaps because of my years, but also because of the fact that I was fortunate to see many of these films in a cinema. As you will appreciate, it is a most rewarding experience to be part of an audience completely “involved” in a film and become caught up in “the emotion of the moment”. I have fond memories of many occasions in the past when the experience of a film was enhanced by a receptive and appreciative audience. My wife and I do attend cinema today, but only for carefully selected films, otherwise we revisit our “favourites” via our DVD collection.

     
    • Colin

      May 25, 2012 at 9:08 pm

      Hi Rod. I agree completely about the cinema experience. There really is something different and special about seeing a movie in the environment and under the conditions originally intended.
      I know a lot of people get turned off by the sometimes annoying behaviour of audiences, but I’ve generally found that if you’re in a position to select the right cinema then this is rarely an issue. Downtown Athens has a number of cinemas where the crowd is well-behaved and considerate so I go quite frequently.
      We’re also lucky here to get regular big screen revivals of classic movies, especially now in the summer.

       
  5. muriel

    May 26, 2012 at 4:30 am

    I really like this movie and the ensemble cast. Like everyone else, I have only seen it in fuzzy PD editions, but it works for me. It makes the movie seem like a strange threatening dream. I’ve always lived on a farm and can remember as a child taking a long hike over to the next valley where I found a abandoned barn with a huge tree growing through it. Not menacing at all, but rather mysterious and very interesting. When I got home, my mother was angry because I was gone too long and would not listen to my story. So it became my “Secret Barn” that I never told about and it grew in my imagination. It’s a happy memory. I saw other odd things on rambles but nothing so picturesque as that barn. (I returned years later and it was all gone. ) So I really identify with the idea of going through the woods looking for an old building.
    There is an interview with Allene Roberts in “Films of the Golden Age” where she discusses the film and how kind EGR was to her on her first film. From her description everyone was very nice.

    http://www.filmsofthegoldenage.com/articles/2009/12/17/current_issue/roberts.txt

     
    • Colin

      May 26, 2012 at 4:44 am

      Firstly, thanks for the link Muriel. A quick glance through indicates that there’s a lot of interesting info and anecdotes contained.

      And that’s a nice story. I grew up in a rural environment myself and well understand the lure of wandering off alone to do a bit of exploring as a kid.

       
  6. Jeff Flugel

    May 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Excellent in-depth look at what seems like an intriguing film, Colin — and a different sort of vehicle than I’m used to seeing from Delmer Daves. Edward G. Robinson sure was a versatile actor who could turn from sympathetic, to pathetic, to sadistic at the drop of a dime. Interesting to hear that Julie London is in this in a supporting role. She had an unique screen presence and was used to such good effect in MAN OF THE WEST.

    I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for this film.

     
    • Colin

      May 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      It’s a great little movie Jeff, one that really deserves to be more widely seen. Robinson, at the top of his game, was a fascinating actor who, as you rightly point out, could produce a wide ranfe of convincing performances.

       
  7. vinnieh

    June 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    I really enjoyed this review. This seems like the kind of the film that I would like to see.

     
    • Colin

      June 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      Thanks. Yeah, I think the rotten quality of prints available till now have contributed to the relative obscurity of the movie.

       
  8. Clayton

    July 3, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    This is a very rare mention of one of my favourite movies. Burningly tense from ‘go'; so much so that I get a bit dizzy if I catch it in the right(or wrong) mood.

    Nice one!

     
    • Colin

      July 4, 2012 at 6:15 am

      Thanks Clayton. Maybe the new edition, which is watchable for a change, will spark a bit of increased interest in this title.

       

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