This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1950 film noir House By The River!
I had never even heard of this movie, but for whatever reason Netflix WI has a fairly decent selection of obscure film noirs, so when I saw it pop up on the menu, and that it was directed by Fritz Lang, I knew that was enough for me to give it a whirl...
House By The River concerns middlingly-successful author Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) who lives in an absurdly huge mansion with his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) and their housekeeper Emily (Dorothy Gaunt). The mansion sits by right the titular river, next to another mansion, in a neighborhood--if you can call it that--that seems to exist in some alternate universe that features no other people or homes. Right from the get-go, there's a closed-off creepiness that reminded me a bit of the films of Val Lewton.
Anyway, not too long into the film we see Byrne make a move on the housekeeper. She rejects his advances, panics, and begins to scream. Afraid the old bitty of a neighbor will overhear the screams, he grabs Emily by the throat, hissing at her to be quiet. Alas, he succeeds a little too well at quieting her, ending up with her choked to death at his feet. Now what?
Instead of immediately going to the police like a normal person would, Byrne instead turns to his brother John (Lee Bowman), who Stephen knows has always harbored a crush on his sister-in-law. Insisting that her life would be ruined as well if the story came out, Stephen convinces John to help him carry the body away, and they take it out in a boat and dump it in the river. Of course, the river--which the neighbor accuses of always bringing up smelly filth on the shore--will not allow such sin to be hidden, and acts like the hand of God itself, reminding Stephen of his crime. Or is it all in his imagination?
Eventually, the missing maid is noticed, and it becomes a big news story. John is considered the main suspect, because his name is stamped inside the wood crate they used as a makeshift coffin. Instead of being concerned for his brother's welfare, Stephen seems pleased that he, at least, will get away with it. Not only that, but he sees this whole thing as a passport to even greater literary fame...
I won't say any more about the plot of House By The River, because while no masterpiece, it's well worth seeking out, especially via Netflix WI, where it won't cost anything. While the performances by the low-wattage stars are nothing especially great (Hayward is always playing to the back rows of the theater, Wyatt is earnestly dull, and Bowman is not quite credible as someone so easily swayed by the pop-eyed, subtle-as-a-brick Stephen), Lang creates a truly creepy, unreal world--again, something akin to what you'd see in a Val Lewton film.
There's nothing outwardly fantastic or even horror-ish in House By The River, but at times it feels like a horror film, not a thriller--it seems like, at any moment, Emily herself is going to rise from the river, pointing a zombie-like finger at her murderer. Byrne's mansion is always deep in shadow, and even during the daylight scenes the wind always seems to be blowing, dead leaves flying about in all directions. One of the final scenes is shot like a horror film, ending the whole shebang with a real, er, bang, visually and dramatically.
At barely 85 minutes, House By The River moves along at a good pace (although I still think it could have used a couple of talky scenes trimmed--I would have made a merciless film editor) and keeps throwing twists at the viewer that leave you wondering just how the hell this is all going to turn out--and what it might do to all that lakefront property value!
Fun Fact: According to IMDB (which is sometimes insane, so caveat emptor), Fritz Lang originally wanted to cast a black actress as the maid, which would have been a really transgressive little detail to throw in. But the spoilsport producers wouldn't let it happen--after all, what the hell did Fritz Lang know about making a good movie?