House By The River

US (1950) Dir. Fritz Lang

Brotherly love. You often hear men in a band, sports team, or entertainment double act proclaim their friendship with another man to be “closer than brothers”. Whilst this might be true that this is a measuring stick of male bonding, as we have seen this isn’t always the case.

Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) is a wealthy writer living in a house by a river with his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt). On the day Marjorie is out, Stephen has another manuscript rejected and despondent, has a few drinks, and makes pass at his new young maid Emily Gaunt (Dorothy Patrick). As Emily tries to scream for help, Stephen covers her mouth and Emily dies from accidental asphyxiation.  

John Byrne (Lee Bowman), Stephen’s brother arrives and reluctantly helps dispose of the body by putting it in a wood sack then dumping it in the river. Emily’s disappearance becomes news, the notoriety helping Stephen’s writing career whilst John remains guilty over his involvement. When the body is found along with John’s name on the sack, he becomes the prime suspect, and Stephen is happy to let his brother take the blame.

Fritz Lang was a giant of silent cinema in his native Germany and his films were not just influential on filmmakers across the globe but many of the ideas and innovations found in such classics as Metropolis, Frau Im Mond, and Spione became reality in real life. But by the 1940s Lang was just another jobbing director in Hollywood, churning out slight but entertaining enough film noir.

House By The River, based on the novel by A. P. Herbert, is such an example, a swift 84-minute melodrama that has passed many audiences by over the years, whilst barely resembling the same seminal architect of cinematic genius from twenty years earlier. It isn’t a bad film but the script by Mel Dinelli leaves to many plot holes for Lang to try to paper over with his visual prowess.

The first thing we notice is the setting which has strong references of the era it was made, the 1940s, but with an overwhelming replication of 19th century Southern states America. Telephones exist but in public only, the attire of the women is corsets and hair tied up, whilst the men hover between the Southern gentleman and city chic. This is curious as A.P Herbert was British and in the original 1921 novel, the culprit was a war poet, so perhaps Dinelli wanted to capture both modernity and the past in one go.

Lang reportedly wanted the victim to be black but was overruled by the Hays Office on the grounds interracial romantic desires would be “problematic”, so we got a shapely blonde instead, which is almost as bad a cliché as the black servant. The reason Stephen became infatuated with Emily – aside from the obvious – is that the servants’ boiler was in need of repair and she was given permission to use the master bathroom instead.

Emily helped herself to some of Marjorie’s perfume and her bathrobe, and with a few drinks to give him a Dutch courage buzz, this was enough for Stephen to go in for a kiss when Emily came out of the bathroom. As the struggle ensues, gossipy neighbour Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker) wanders into her garden, forcing Stephen to cover Emily’s mouth to silence her.

It is made clear that Stephen has a habit of screwing up and brother John is always the one to help clear up the mess, but not this time until Stephen begs. That night they attend a party where Stephen goes over the top to be noticed to take any heat off them but John is disgusted by how easily his brother seems to have got over their dirty deed hours earlier.

Once Emily’s disappearance becomes news, John goes into a spiral of despair whilst Stephen lets his new found fame go to his head. Ironically, both brothers push away their only female support – Stephen is increasingly hostile towards Marjorie whilst John ends up losing his gossiping maid Ms. Bantam (Jody Gilbert), a brute of a woman playing up as a delicate rose in what is an unintentional comic turn.

Gossip and circumstantial evidence put John firmly in the frame and consequently, his self-esteem hits rock bottom, yet Stephen become giddy with ego, since this sorry saga forms the basis of his next book. If you have ever wondered what kind of idiot would essentially novelise his murder confession, here is your answer; had the film been a bit longer, it might have been able to focus on this and draw more drama from it to help delineate Stephen’s descent into megalomania.

As it is, Lang employs favoured film noir visual touches like shadows and location as a shortcut to achieve this once the credibility of the plot crumbles under scrutiny. Through Stephen’s cranky duplicity to John’s tortured melancholy, the atmosphere is mostly dark and on the edge, and even the expectation of a just denouement seems to slip further out of reach, something Lang delights in teasing us with until the final moments.

Maybe because the script isn’t as challenging as anything Thea von Harbou wrote, there is a feeling Lang is only half-committed to this film, whilst the restrictions of the Hays Office must also play a part in this. But when he is on form, you know it – the opening scene of something ominous floating down the river subtly presages things to come, whilst the haunting of Stephen by Emily via he most innocuous of means is cleverer than it looks.

Whilst this is enough to appreciate House By The River as a tidy slice of low budget film noir it doesn’t help it stand out above similar B-movie fare, though one can see where the dilution of the story due to time constraints didn’t help either. At 84-minutes however it passes the time sufficiently to satiate Lang/genre fans.