“Lang never approached a project casually; he enjoyed making films too much.” –Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It
In 1950 Fritz Lang was coming off the failure of a movie dear to his heart, The Secret Beyond the Door. He told Peter Bogdanovich that The House by the River was just something he was offered, but “there are certain things in it I liked.” The movie, made for peanuts at tightwad Republic Studios, is a low-budget thriller with a low-budget cast, a potboiler, a melodrama. But low budgets simply don’t matter that much with a talent like Lang’s.
Watch The House By the River on Fandor.
For one thing, he takes the obvious “set-ness” of the sets and fits it to the story. The house of the title sits in an improbably close row of other houses, so close to a large, swift river that in real life one set of spring rains would have them all scrambling for higher ground. The location is often described as the South, and perhaps that was the intent, but judging from the accents it’s got to be southern Illinois. The characters are affluent, but seem to have spent everything on the wallpaper and wainscoting and had little left over for details like furniture. The movie’s location is everywhere and nowhere. To the emigrant Lang, it’s just America: tasteless affluence perched precariously beside a seething flow of moral decay and sublimated sex.
Lang was given no real stars for this picture, but his main actor, Louis Hayward, is so enjoyable that you scramble for his filmography to see what else he’s done. The first line of the movie is spoken by an elderly busybody hoeing her garden: “I hate this river,” she says, as the corpse of something floats past. Hayward gets up from his writing, easily distracted from something he wasn’t approaching with passion anyway. And his entire character is in one affable line delivery–”It’s people you should be blaming for the filth, not the river”–and his casual reaction, too disengaged even to look in the direction of a dead thing. Up in the far background, a pretty young housemaid (Dorothy Patrick) is approaching during the exchange. She’ll be dead in the next ten minutes of the movie, discarded as ruthlessly as the animal, after Hayward accidentally kills her.
The House by the River, its 88 minutes rippling out from that admirably compact opening, goes on to build a decayed, feverishly lustful atmosphere. Hayward’s antihero blossoms from failed writer to bestselling sensation through the simple expedient of strangling someone. The movie is full of expressive Lang marvels, from a twisted tree in the river that seems to have a taste for carrion, to a shot of a man at the top of a cellar door, shrouded in black on both sides as he himself searches out a sack to make a shroud for a dead woman.
Lang is a sexy filmmaker. I have no idea why people frequently treat this statement as mad when I bring it up. Other directors highlight attraction, eroticism, games. Lang understands those aspects too, very well indeed, but they aren’t as pivotal. Lang understands the way people use sex to torment one another. In The House by the River, it comes through in obvious ways, such as the housemaid‘s death–the build to Hayward’s seduction attempt is ferociously sensual, but so is the aftermath, as the position of her corpse and the way he leans over it suggests consummation as much as cover-up.
But the tortured sex is also there when the wife (Jane Wyatt) comes home, flicking down the staircase in the same way we last saw the maid. Hayward unlaces her corset and pulls his hands around her waist. She says she should have stayed home, throws her arms around him affectionately in a gesture that echoes Emily’s deathly embrace, and Hayward flashes on the fish he saw jumping in the river when dumping the girl’s body with his brother (Lee Bowman). The sex is also in the hungry way the brother watches a square dance: he’s in love with Wyatt, but his leg is lame, and the way the dance is shot you sense Bowman focusing not just on his carefree, murderous brother, but also on Wyatt’s hand disappearing inside a partner’s. It’s even there in the motherly bustle of Bowman’s own housemaid (Jody Gilbert), her vast bosom leaning over him as she coaxes her love object to eat some eggs.
Hayward is a frustrated writer, dedicated enough to send out manuscripts multiple times, but not talented enough to get any better. But Emily’s death turns his one published book into a success, and also releases something in him. Inhibitions gone, he’s able to write a book about her disappearance, but the better his book gets, the closer he steps towards an unwanted discovery. Naturally it’s the river, that classic symbol of flowing, uncontrollable forces, that ultimately unleashes his undoing.
Farran Smith Nehme blogs about movies at The Self Styled Siren, and is co-host of “For the Love of Film Noir: The Film Preservation Blogathon.”
Watch The House By the River on Fandor.