Sunday, March 03, 2019

The House by the River (1950)

“Lang never approached a project casually; he enjoyed making films too much.” 
—Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It

In 1950 Fritz Lang was coming off the box-office failure of a movie dear to his heart, The Secret Beyond the Door. He told Bogdanovich The House by the River was just something he was offered, but “there are certain things in it I liked.” The movie, made for peanuts at tightwad Republic Studios, is a low-budget thriller with a low-prestige cast—a potboiler, a melodrama. So the Siren expected it to be terrific, and it was.

Low budgets don’t matter that much with a talent like Lang’s—he takes the obvious set-ness of the sets and fits it to the story. The house of the title sits in an improbably compact row of other houses, so close to a large, swift river that in real life one good set of spring rains would have them all scrambling for higher ground. The story’s location is often described as the South, and perhaps that was the intent, but judging from the accents, it’s southern Illinois. The characters are affluent, but they seem to have spent everything on the wallpaper and wainscoting with not much left over for little details like furniture.

The movie’s setting is everywhere and nowhere. To the emigrant Lang, it’s just America, tasteless affluence hard by a seething flow of decay and sublimated sex.

Lang was given no real stars for this picture, but the lead, Louis Hayward, is so enjoyable you scramble for his filmography to see what else he’s done. The first line of the movie is spoken by an elderly busybody hoeing her garden: “I hate this river,” she says, as the corpse of something floats past. Stephen Byrne (Hayward) gets up from his writing, easily distracted from something he wasn’t approaching with passion anyway. Stephen’s character is revealed in one affable line delivery—“It’s people you should be blaming for the filth, not the river”—and in his reaction, too disengaged even to glance in the direction of a dead thing. Up in the far background, a pretty young housemaid (Dorothy Patrick) approaches. She’ll be dead in the next ten minutes of runtime, discarded as ruthlessly as the animal.

The House by the River, 88 minutes rippling out from that admirably succinct opening, builds a decayed, feverishly lustful atmosphere. Its antihero blossoms from failed writer to bestselling sensation through the simple expedient of strangling someone. The budget may have been low, but for a Lang lover the movie is full of marvels, from a twisted tree in the river that seems to have a taste for carrion, to a shot of Stephen at the top of a cellar door, cloaked in black on both sides as he searches for a sack to make a shroud for a dead woman.

Fritz Lang is a sexy filmmaker. The Siren has no idea why people often treat this statement as mad. Other directors highlight attraction, eroticism, games. Lang understands those things too, very well indeed, but he is mainly preoccupied with the ways people use sex to torment one another. In The House by the River, that shows in scenes such as the housemaid Emily’s death—the build to Stephen’s seduction attempt is ferociously sensual. So is the aftermath, as the position of Emily’s corpse and the way Stephen leans over her suggests consummation as much as cover-up.

Tortured sex is also evident when Stephen’s wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) comes home, flicking down the staircase with the same movements we last saw from the maid. Stephen unlaces Marjorie's corset, she pulls his hands around her waist. She says she should have stayed home, throws up her arms around him in a gesture of wifely affection that also echoes Emily’s corpse—and Stephen flashes on the fish he saw jumping in the river as he and his brother John (Lee Bowman) dumped the girl’s body. There is hunger too in John watching a square dance—he’s in love with Wyatt, but his leg is lame, and through Lang’s camera you sense John focusing not only on his carefree, murderous brother, but also on Wyatt’s hand disappearing inside a partner’s. Sex is even there in the motherly bustle of John’s own housemaid (Jody Gilbert), her vast bosom leaning over him as she coaxes her love object to eat some eggs.

Stephen is a frustrated writer, dedicated enough to submit and re-submit manuscripts again and again, but not enough to get any better at writing. Emily’s death turns Stephen’s one published book into a success, and also releases something in him—talent, we suspect. Inhibitions gone, he writes a book about her disappearance. But the better his book gets, the closer he steps to discovery. Naturally it’s the river, a classic symbol of sensuality, that resolves Stephen’s fate by uncovering death.

(Originally published at the late lamented Fandor.)

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