“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.