#17 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
This feels like a more successful attempt at what I think Fritz Lang was trying to accomplish with Secret Beyond the Door, a gothic tale of murder. Where the previous film descended into rank Freudian silliness, the psychological elements of House by the River are left a bit more beneath the surface, working more in line with traditional thriller structure and conventions. That means that this film doesn’t break any thriller mold, but it does operate more comfortably and reasonably in the familiar space while giving Lang room to explore shadows and composition, as was his wont.
This movie feels like it’s missing an opening ten minute long or so scene to more fully establish characters and setting. It almost feels like we got dropped into the second scene of the film. Still, we meet Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), a minor novelist of little renown, left alone at his home by the river with only his nosy neighbor Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker) and his new maid Emily (Dorothy Patrick) to keep him company. After Emily bathes and puts on some of her mistress’s perfume, Stephen, frustrated by his novelistic troubles, comes onto Emily very hard to the point that she starts screaming. He tries to hush her up. His hands end up around her throat, and she dies. Stephen’s brother John (Lee Bowman) shows up, and Stephen manages to guilt John into helping him hide the body in the river. By the time his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) shows up, all seems well in the house.
Stephen becomes steadily unhinged as time goes on, obviously wanting to feel secure in his getting away with the crime while also having fear that a noose is tightening around his neck. However, a certain meta-element gets introduced here that gives him drive. At a book signing Stephen organizes to capitalize on his proximity to everything, one of the nice ladies offers him the old advice of writing what he knows. He’s going to write about the murder of Emily. As the investigation continues, with moments that both ease Stephen’s worry and compound it depending on the circumstances, he writes away, using his position as employer of the girl to help advance his fame and career. Stephen is a complete psychopath.
In contrast is John, his brother. John’s first moment in the film is odd, with him walking in the back door of the house right after the crime and Stephen announcing his name like we already know who he is (this is the core of my idea that there’s a missing opening to help introduce characters a bit more, the other part being that Marjorie doesn’t appear for at least the first 20 minutes), but he ends up being the moral center of the story. He’s a good man, an accountant who gave up a large portion of his portion of their parents inheritance and offered it up to Stephen to help him establish himself in a way conducive to his writing. He’s hard working and honest, and getting entangled in Stephen’s web of lies puts him in an untenable position where he can’t do anything to get out that is remotely right in his own eyes. On the one hand, he would have to give up his brother, the brother he had already sacrificed so much for, and on the other, he was actually an accessory after the fact. This moral quandary, along with some damning circumstantial evidence, puts him in the crosshairs of the authorities, much to the delight of his younger brother.
In more than one way, House by the River reminds me of yet another Alfred Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn. I have very kind feelings towards it, but it was definitely not kindly received contemporaneously (or even now by the rest of the filmgoing world). Released in 1949, the year before House by the River, it also dealt with a Victorian era mystery involving murder. I find it hard to believe that the studio would have pushed for a Victorian era gothic mystery to take advantage of the lack of success of Hitchcock’s film, but it seems obvious to me that Lang was watching Hitchcock’s career closely, especially through the 40s. One way that the two remind me of each other is that they’re both billed as thrillers, but they also both function more fully as dramas. Under Capricorn is more melodramatic in nature while House by the River leans more luridly thrillerish. I think that’s why I like Hitchcock’s film more, it more fully embraces the conventions of traditional drama while peppering its ending with thriller elements, but House by the River is no slouch when it comes to the drama. That is highlighted in the characterization of the brothers.
Stephen is well drawn as a complete psychopath, hiding it through his writing and the civility of nice manners, but John is consumed by guilt and loyalty at war with each other. They’re both well-written, and in between them is Marjorie who grows to detest her husband and find true affection for her brother-in-law. None of it is hitting the strongest of emotional chords, but it works well enough. And, much like Scarlet Street feeling like a drama culminating in its own thread of horror, this does its own part in crescendoing into the conventions of gothic thriller territory. It works. It just doesn’t elicit deep emotions as it gets there.
So, it’s a fine thriller, something of a minor return to form after the less than successful Cloak and Dagger and Secret Beyond the Door. It’s Lang using his camera to tell a racy story (as Mrs. Ambrose describes the tastes of the masses that Stephen should be appealing to in his novels) to entertain and nothing more. In that, he succeeds.