The irredeemable characters of Fritz Lang’s House by the River submerge themselves in life’s little evils (gossip, betrayal, murder) in order to feel power over their innocent peers. It’s something struggling writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) has mastered, especially in regard to controlling his naïve wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) and his earnest older brother John (Lee Bowman). But something sinister happens in the film’s opening moments that graduate Stephen to the next level of psychopath. After killing his beautiful housemaid Emily (Dorothy Patrick) in a fit of panic, he permanently disappears beneath the surface of reality into a fantasy realm where he’s the star of his own melodrama.
While sharing a trivial conversation with a nosy neighbor in the backyard of his riverfront property, Stephen gives Emily permission to use his upstairs bathroom since the maid’s quarters suffer from faulty plumbing. When Stephen finally retires inside to have a drink, he becomes increasingly aroused by the fact that Emily currently inhabits his private space with Marjorie away at a friend’s house. Lang masterfully conveys power structures with little more than a devilish grin, making Stephen’s shady intentions quite clear. Finally, Emily begins her ascent down the stairs in a nightgown, Lang’s low angle camera capturing her sexy legs from Stephen’s vantage point. He blows out the candle to hide his presence, causing Emily to pause out of fear.
The scene that follows sets the entire film in motion. “You frightened me,” Emily says when Stephen finally reveals himself with a creepy whisper. But this is only the beginning of her torment. As she tries to pass him on the stairs, he pins her between the wall and the banister. Lang shoots most of the exchange in long shot with harsh shadows lining the walls, capturing Emily’s duress through her awkward body movement and pained facial expressions. We also see Stephen’s increasingly sweaty brow, and his physical excitement at dominating the female form. When Emily finally moves past he grabs her arm, and she begins to scream. “Nice perfume,” Stephen growls, insinuating that she has stolen some of his wife’s expensive fragrance.
But blackmail doesn’t work on Emily, as she begins to scream louder for him to let go. This draws the attention of the aforementioned neighbor, causing Stephen to wrap his hands around Emily’s neck hoping to quell the noise. Moments later, all the life has been squeezed out of her body. The most fascinating part of this brutal scene is how Lang starts close on Stephen’s mad face, only to track out and reveal Emily’s slumped body hanging limp, which he drops to the ground like a sack of potatoes. “Merciful God,” Stephen says, but it’s all for show. He will spend the rest of the film manipulating his closest allies to take the fall for this indiscretion, most notably John.
Seamless deception appears to be a product of the small river town where Stephen lives and kills. Rampant class division produces the necessary judgment and doubt that allows Stephen to plot and conceal with near-God like omniscience. But with all of Fritz Lang’s great films, the filmmaker does not presume to be certain whether the environment created the monster—or vice versa.
As a film noir, House by the River progresses in ebbs and flows, its characters’ secrets drifting back and for across the screen like the discarded objects floating on the titular estuary. Not only does the fluid location provide the opportunity for Lang to perpetually torture his characters (Stephen and John dump the body in the water only to have it return time and again), it nicely parallels the classic noir theme of inevitability and fate. Trauma will always float back to the surface.