House by the River (1950) Fritz Lang
Wealthy novelist Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward, above right) strangles one of his house servants (Dorothy Patrick, above left) when she begins screaming to ward off Byrne’s amorous advances. Before he can think fast enough, Byrne’s brother John (Lee Bowman, below left) walks in and helps him dispose of the body by dumping it in the river (thus the nifty title). Can the brothers now fool everyone in town before they kill each other?
Just seeing “Directed by Fritz Lang” in a film doesn’t just bring an expectation of quality, it suggests something on the level of awe. This is the man who gave us the Dr. Mabuse films, M, Metropolis, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat, The Woman in the Window… Well, there’s no need for me to list Lang’s entire body of work. Suffice it to say, the man was brilliant. But everyone slips up from time to time and House by the River is one of those slips.
As Victorian noir, the costumes and sets mostly work, and the story moves forward at a moderate pace. Lang’s use of light, shadow and camerawork are all excellent, but the story is pretty standard, with the exception of some magical realism thrown in, mostly to clue us in to Stephen’s mental state. As Stephen, Louis Hayward constantly gives off the impression that he’s just done something wrong, which all the other characters should pick up on. (Maybe they think he’s just another crazy Victorian novelist?) Avant-garde composer George Antheil’s score is effective in some scenes, wildly overblown in others. And the ending of the film has to stand as one of the weakest in the history of noir. Oddly enough, though, Jane Wyatt (below right) – an actor I’ve never much cared for – does a nice job as Stephen’s wife.
If I seem to come across as too negative, it’s probably due to having adored so many of Lang’s other films over the years. House by the River is enjoyable enough, but it’s far from great.