House by the River

I know everyone won’t agree but I’ve always felt that film noir works well in a gothic setting, where the atmosphere is necessarily thick and crimes (particularly crimes of passion) are a basic ingredient. In addition, the social constraints that govern the characters’ lives and actions help to increase the feeling of pressure, while the ornately forbidding homes where many such stories are played out can be just as menacing in their own way as any rain-slicked urban sidewalk. I think the fact that noir isn’t a real genre is one of its great strengths; this lends it a flexibility allowing theme, mood and look to assume as much importance as time and place. Fritz Lang’s House by the River (1950), dripping in heavy gothic atmosphere, confined for the most part to the titular house, and exploiting the suffocating moral code of its period setting, is most definitely film noir. It’s an interesting and at times visually striking work, but not an entirely successful one. However, I’ll go into the reasons for that later.

Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) is a writer, but not an especially successful one. He is first seen seated outside his riverside home and working on a manuscript. When a neighbour comments on a foul animal carcass that the current has been carrying up and down the waterway for days, he remarks that it’s a similar story with his writing – his publisher keeps returning it. Despite the light tone of these comments, the river, and its tendency to return anything tossed into it, plays a significant (and even vaguely supernatural) part in the plot. While his professional shortcomings only serve to hint at a weakness in Stephen’s character, the sly, lustful glances he steals at his attractive housemaid make that flaw obvious. Taking advantage of his wife’s absence, he decides to try his hand at seducing the help. However, his inadequacies manifest themselves again and he botches the attempt. What’s worse is that in an effort to prevent the girl’s cries from alerting the neighbours to his philandering, he accidentally strangles her. These early scenes inside the opulent yet oppressive home, all carved furniture and flock wallpaper, are particularly well staged and shot; the extreme angles and the high contrast photography conveying a sense of claustrophobic menace and terror. Having his brother John (Lee Bowman) stumble on the killing might appear to be just one more calamity to befall this man. Nevertheless, it turns out to be something of a godsend. John, with his stiff leg and retiring manner, is the polar opposite of Stephen, a kind and considerate man whose sense of civic duty is only exceeded by his loyalty to his brother. So, when Stephen begs for his help in covering up what he claims was merely a tragic miscalculation, John agrees to bail him out. With the body of the unfortunate servant bundled into an old wood sack, the two brothers row out on the river at night and dump the evidence. But it’s from this point on that the story begins to twist and turn like the meandering river and continues to do so until the literal and metaphorical tide brings everything back home. As events unfold, the contrasting characters of the two brothers are thrown into sharp relief, John’s stoicism and honour growing as the crisis deepens while Stephen’s venal and deceitful nature gradually consumes him.

Fritz Lang’s films, by his own admission, all deal with human weakness and the criminal actions that follow. House by the River can be viewed as a meditation on moral weakness and its corrosive effects; murder, the destruction of family relationships, and the final descent into madness. The small central cast and Lang’s moody visuals ensure that the tension is never relaxed yet the film doesn’t quite satisfy. When this happens the finger of blame can often be pointed at the writing or direction. However, that’s not the case here; I can’t fault Lang’s work and the story is logical enough in context, although it has to be said the ending is both abrupt and a little too contrived for my liking. No, the problem as I see it is more of focus and characterization. It’s important for any film to have a lead who’s capable of stirring at least some sympathy or sense of identification with the audience. In House by the River the lead is Louis Hayward’s Stephen, and he is such a vile excuse for a man that it’s quite impossible to empathize in any way. In the comments on an earlier post I mentioned that Louis Hayward has never been a favourite of mine, but that’s not the issue. In all honesty, his playing of Stephen is a good piece of work – he really fleshes out the smarmy, snivelling aspect of the man. As I said, it’s a matter of focus; the story is seen primarily from Stephen’s perspective, and it’s more and more difficult as the film progresses to feel anything other than revulsion at the self-serving way he latches onto every opportunity to gain advantage at the expense of those around him. The only “hero” of the piece, although I’m not sure the word’s entirely appropriate, is Lee Bowman’s John. Even if there’s arguably too much of the martyr about him, he does present a human face, a kind of moral compass amid the depravity. However, John’s suffering at the hands of his brother is pushed for the most part to the background, and although we’re rooting for him it’s Stephen’s scheming that remains front and centre. I ought to mention Jane Wyatt’s role as Stephen’s wife as it’s the only other significant part. She does tap into a sort of soulful and vaguely bewildered vibe, but this is essentially a two-man show and she is mainly left to play the puzzled dupe before transforming into the typical damsel in distress.

Over the years I’ve bought House by the River three times on DVD before finding a copy that I consider acceptable. The US edition from Kino is a weak interlaced transfer while the French disc boasts a far stronger image but has forced subtitles that can’t be switched off easily. However, last year’s release by Sinister Films in Italy is an excellent alternative, looking as though it’s been taken from the same source as the French version. The film has been transferred progressively and the image is sharp and detailed with only very minor print damage. The Italian subtitles are optional and can be turned off via the setup menu. By way of extras, the disc also features a conversation between Lang and William Friedkin focusing on the director’s time in Germany and lasts around 45 minutes – a most welcome addition. There’s also an inlay card that folds out into a miniature reproduction of the original poster art. All in all, this is a movie that I’m quite fond of – I’ve highlighted the reasons why I don’t see it as one of Lang’s best efforts, but there’s still a lot to enjoy and admire. For those who don’t yet have the film, or others dissatisfied with the editions they already own, I recommend checking out the Italian disc.

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21 thoughts on “House by the River

  1. *sigh* Another to add to the list – thanks a lot. I haven’t seen this one but I caught a couple of Lang’s American films recently and was impressed with his brilliance in screening tightly told noir-ish yarns with a bleak moral emptiness. It sounds as though the Lang household was a more or less ‘up’ place to be, doesn’t it? I’ll definitely seek this one out.

  2. A well-judged and interesting review as always Colin. This is a film that I’ve never seen and, from what you say, that Italian Sinister release sounds like the way to go. I admire your persistence in triple and quadruple dipping until you get the best copy available! It can be a frustrating (not to mention expensive) business but I agree that any Fritz Lang film must be worth the effort.
    I think my favourite line in your review was “he decides to try his hand at seducing the help”. An expression that is more commonly applied to loftier pursuits such as “painting a landscape” or “building a wood cabinet” used with “seducing the help” made me chuckle! 🙂

    • Dafydd, the Sinister Films release is definitely the way to go on this one. I try not to double-dip, or triple-dip in this case, but there are some movies where I’m just not satisfied with the presentation I own and I end up seeking out an upgrade – this is one of them. Sinister are generaly very good in my experience, and I’m looking forward to their upcoming release of Highway 301.

      As for the “try his hand” bit, Hayward’s character did see himself as a cut above everybody else so it’s not entirely inappropriate. Anyway, I’m glad it raised a smile.

  3. I’m glad you emphasised the look and feel of this movie because that is certainly what i remember from my sole viewing of it a good decade or so ago. The titular image is really compelling and always reminded me a bit of elements of the (OK, definitely superior) NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. it looks great and yet is is a hard film to like as you so rightly say, especially with Hayward in the title role. Had it been Edward G. Robinson, perhaps with Joan Bennett as the wife, even such an unsympathetic role might have emerged with some humanity intact. But then there is something pitiless quite often about Lang’s work, specially in his spare, later movies like this one in which the lower budgets seemed to require a more stripped down approach to character and mise-en-scene. Thanks for writing about his one in such detail – definitely makes me want to watch it again immediately!

    Sergio

    • Hi Sergio. Some different casting may have helped a little in making the character of Stephen more sympathetic, but I reckon the problem lies more in the nature of the character than in who’s portraying him. Hayward could channel that reptilian aspect very well, and I think he plays the role as it’s written. I feel the only way to do anything about this would have been to change the focus and have a stronger actor take on the part of John.

      Lang’s later work has a lean, stripped down feel to it that was certainly influenced by the tighter budgets he was obliged to work with. I think it’s to his credit that he could squeeze as much atmosphere and such memorable visuals out of them as he did.

      If my piece has encouraged you, or anyone else, to watch or rewatch it then I’m very pleased.

    • Muriel, you’re lucky there’s only one director for whom you’re a completist; I could reel off about a half dozen, maybe more. We’re also fortunate in that *I think* all of his movies are now available, at least all his US pictures. Tracking them down does require a bit of global shopping, but they’re out there.

      One particular director whose work I’d like to have complete is Robert Siodmak. Most of his movies have appeared in one place or another but there are still a handful missing, sadly.

  4. I was Louis Hayward’s personal manager, although after this period. House By The River was a failure for the public. Louis wanted to work with Lang, and he can have him. The reviews were tepid, no one went. In hindsight it is treated as a lost gem. I think, just pretentious.

    • Thanks for stopping by Barry. Interesting to hear an insider point of view. I didn’t think the movie was especially pretentious to be honest; visually and in terms of theme it’s a good, solid noir. I just felt the characterization, especially Louis Hayward’s role, was too negative to engage an audience.
      I wonder how Hayward felt about playing the part of such an unsympathetic cad in the movie?

  5. A film with Hayward that works to his advantage and that of the audience, Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None (1945). Made immediately prior to that, have a look at Ladies In Retirement (1941). Louis was set first and he influenced Charles Vidor and Lester Cowan to cast Ida. The part was written originally for a much older woman. Worked well this way. If you have the chance, plese let me know what you think.Final thought: These films made just prior to Louis’ military service and just after work well in part because Hayward was one of the few leading men available for weak and nasty parts. In the case of And Then There Were None, Barry Fitzgerald had just won the Academy Award for playing a lovable priest. It, the award and previous part, affected this film.

    • Thanks for getting back to me Barry. The two movies you mention, coincidentally, came up in a discussion we had here a while back. I’ve never seen Ladies in Retirement, so I’ll have to look out for that one.

      And Then There Were None, on the other hand, is a movie I’m very familiar with. I agree that Hayward was fine in that one, where the audience had to be kept guessing as regards identity and motives right up to the end. As for Fitzgerald’s involvement, I can well imagine that contemporary audiences must have been thrown a little off guard when you consider his typical screen persona – just goes to show how important it is to try to place films in context when viewing them so many years after their release. Again, I thought Fitzgerald’s role worked vey well in that movie by toying with and manipulating audience expectations.

      • LADIES IN RETIREMENT is really worth looking our for (it’s available as a Sony MOD I believe …) – it is very strange and very powerful – saw it at a young age and it made a real impact. For some reason doesn;t get shown much – maybe there are rights issues or somethign to do with the remake in the 1960s – but a highly atmospheric movie and once seen, never forgotten!

        • Having read a synopsis of the movie, I have to say it does sound intriguing. And the screencaps posted by DVD Beaver certainly give the impression it has bags of atmosphere.

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