Monday, February 15, 2010

House by the River (1950)

Straddling the line between eerie and erotic, the suspenseful sequence's success derives not only from it's masterfully angled and nearly expressionistic shots, and the cast member's deftly-acted cat-and-mouse - but the drawn out, Hitchcock-like suspense, which leaves' the viewer's heart racing, and imagination working overtime. Married novelist Stephen Byrne has offered the household's maid 'Emily' the use of his and his wife Marjorie's personal bath when her's is in disrepair, and following a backyard chat with his gossipy neighbor 'Mrs. Ambrose', and a sly glance towards the drainpipe in which Emily's used bathwater noisily surges, Stephen is drawn inside by thoughts of the fetching lass upstairs in all that steam.

Confronting her as she descends the stairwell, Stephen makes a forceful, semi-drunken pass -which is rebuffed and met with anguished screams as a struggle ensues. Fearful that Mrs. Ambrose is within earshot of Emily, Stephen shifts from unsuccessful pleading to clamping his hands around the terrified young woman's throat, to temporarily silence her cries. When sure that he is in no danger of discovery, Stephen releases his grip only to watch Emily collapse to the floor, lifeless. Within seconds, Stephen's older brother John darkens the doorway and learns of the tragic accident to which he is rapidly enlisted to help cover up. Having played the brother's keeper card, Stephen inadvertently prompts John to remind his desperate brother that he has dutifully supported him numerous times before - this information further developing our killer's character as an irresponsible self-server who's grown accustomed to his more level-headed brother's bail-outs. The tipping point for John, though, is Stephen's claim that Marjorie is pregnant - implying that any scandal would disrupt their lives irrecoverably. The solemn, slightly disabled elder brother has long carried a torch for Marjorie , and though deeply torn agrees to help stuff Emily's body in a sack and cast it into the river beyond the end of Stephen's property - but the river is not nearly as willing to swallow this nightmarish secret.

So begins Fritz Lang's buried jewel - 1950's 'House by the River', a pitch black gothic noir that though modestly budgeted and featuring low-wattage star-power, succeeds on nearly all levels - proving yet again that gifted filmmakers can produce something memorably sophisticated and artful even with lamentably limited means. The renowned director had just suffered through the poor reception shown his 'Secret Beyond the Door' (1948, Joan Bennett), and this setback paired with his reputation as a somewhat demanding personality, may have been behind his reputed banishment to low-rent Republic Pictures ('City that Never Sleeps', 'Moonrise'). Shifting into Ulmer-mode, Lang crafts a blissfully stream-lined period noir - devoid of anything narratively superfluous ('House' even eschews flashbacks, though is not above spooky optical effects - which deservedly plague our story's protagonist/antagonist). If there's a weak link at all it's in the production design, as the sets appear particularly cheap. The establishing shot of the Byrne property features a view of the titular house - which appears to be painted on a backdrop, a la a stage production.

As with 'Detour's gifted auteur, Lang distracts the viewer away from his film's shortcomings and toward the engrossing dramatic elements of the plot, and the ever-shifting dynamics between the leads. 'House's homme fatale is, in this fan's estimation, one of the sub-genre's most chilling characters. An urbane and fairly well-to-do writer whose career has cooled-off, Stephen is the sort who will casually shatter his marriage vows on a whim if the opportunity presents itself. Lang and screenwriter Mel Dinelli ('The Window') toy with the viewers expectations early in the film by contrasting Stephen's later transgressions with a shot of him gently freeing a spider that has found his paperwork - an inclusion that humanizes our lead, and one that only splinters our opinion of him when we learn to what lengths he'll attempt self-preservation.

Perfectly cast, Hayward brings an enjoyable and casual flair to his later scenes, in which his character's psyche seemingly erodes before our eyes. First lying to John about Marjorie's status to coerce John into helping him, then scheming to eliminate anyone who threatens to bring the truth to light, Stephen is one of noir's unsung sociopaths. Ostensibly a good-natured sort with a history of scrapes that only his sibling is aware of, beneath his surface lay a severely broken and corrupt soul - ready and willing to commit the unconscionable. As the dark story arcs towards it's poetic conclusion, John addresses the issue directly, stating

“You must be very, very ill Stephen...”

(Hayward's bemused, glassy-eyed response,

“Ill?” is priceless),

but will learn the hard way that even he is not exempt from Stephen's cold-blooded machinations.

One can debate the film's validity as a true noir, but while no fedoras, revolvers, or rain-slicked prowl cars are in evidence, Lang's turn-of-the-century potboiler falls squarely in noir territory, and is no less twisty or bleak than any of the director's more high-profile genre entries. Though slightly hamstrung by budget restrictions, 'House by the River' resonates for the viewer in the unique way the best noir films do - leaving one pleasurably unnerved.

Written by David

House By the River (1950)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Louis Hayward (Steven Byrne), Jane Wyatt (Marjorie Byrne), Lee Bowman (John Byrne), Dorothy Patrick (Emily).

1 comment:

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