May 28, 2020
House by the River – US, 1949
There is a moment in Fritz Lang’s House by the River that is incredibly revealing, yet it goes by so quickly that it can easily be missed. It occurs during a conversation between John Byrne (Lee Bowman) and Marjorie Byrne (Jane Wyatt), the wife of John’s brother, Stephen. In it, Marjorie is expressing her gratification for John’s undying support of her and Stephen when she mentions that John gave up his share of the family fortune upon his parents’ untimely death. Now, why would someone do this? I suppose it could be the result of guilt, a way of apologizing for prior mistreatment or neglect, but nothing in John’s behavior supports this interpretation. Instead, his motivation seems to have been the result of either his brother’s highly manipulative oral skills or John’s potentially dangerous feelings for his sister-in-law, Perhaps it was a little of both.
The character at the heart of Lang’s film is Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), a man whose level of moral corruption is staggering. When we first meet him, he is cheerfully discussing the river that flows by his home with one of the maids in his employ. In an unfortunate bit of obvious foreshadowing, the maid complains about the tendency of the water to take things away only to bring them a few days later. In other words, the river is a haunting figure, a potential reminder of one’s past sins.
Stephen is a writer – at least that is how he would describe himself. The frequent letters of rejection that he receives from publishers suggest otherwise. After receiving one such letter, he sits down to write, only to find his mind wandering to his home’s second floor wash room. There, his young maid, Emily (Dorothy Patrick), having received Stephen’s permission, is taking a shower in his wife’s bathroom. Soon Stephen is lurking in the shadows of the first floor hallway, watching as Emily – in particular, her long, shiny legs - descends the stairs. He makes his move; she rejects his attempts to kiss her. A moment later, Emily lies dead.
At this point in the film, Stephen is a somewhat tragic figure, and Emily’s death seems to have been an accident, the result of a man’s shame at having given in to such lecherous impulses as well as his inclination to prevent them from coming into public view. So, when he spies someone at the front door, we can be forgiven for understanding his panic. After all, this is a man who earlier saw a bug encroach into his writing space, and instead of squashing it, gently returned it to its natural setting. So, when we hear him plead with his brother – the man at the front door – to help him cover up the murder, we can understand John’s initial willingness to keep his brother’s crime a secret. And yet, listen to him carefully. It is clear that Stephen is no stranger to trouble, and since some of the things he tells his brother we know to be lies, what are we to make of the remark that persuades his brother to go against his more ethical impulses – that Stephen is soon going to be a father?
If you’ve seen movies like this, it will not surprise you to learn that the crime eventually comes out. What sets House by the River apart from most of those films is the way it sets its characters on very different paths. We see the consequences of sudden fame, from Stephen’s embrace of the public’s interest in the case to John’s emotional downfall after public scrutiny falls upon him. And then there’s the role of Marjorie. In too many films from this time period, characters such as she are one-dimensional, either housewives or the romantic interest of the male protagonist. Marjorie is more. While there are moments in which she retreats into a more subservient position - perhaps as a result of Stephen’s expectations - she also possesses a drive and an awareness that a life without love is hardly desirable. And she does not care much for society’s expectations of her or for the way it defines decency. If she wants to pay a visit to a man who is not her husband, that is what she does.
The film stumbles a bit during a courtroom scene, particularly because it does not reveal much that the audience does not already know and because it relies on a character making her first (and last) appearance for fireworks. There is also mention of a shadowy figure trailing Marjorie when it would have made much more sense for him to follow Stephen if he is indeed the figure that Marjorie thinks he is. And the film’s big climax is a bit of a letdown. After building one character up as Marjorie’s knight in shining armor, screen writer Mel Dinelli elects to inject elements of either the supernatural or mental fragility into the film, despite the fact that neither makes any sense at that point.
Still, the film works more that it stumbles. The performances of the lead characters are all memorable. The film is also well shot and makes impressive use of light, dark, and half-revealed shadows. And it has intriguing characters, a plot that continually evolves and enthralls, and haunting shots of the all-knowing waters that flow daily past the cursed house. It is worth discovering. (on DVD and Blu-ray)