This evening I'd hoped to attend a double bill of "Gothic noir" films directed by Fritz Lang at the Noir City Film Festival. Alas, the schedule didn't work out for me to make the trip to Los Angeles today, but since I had some free time tonight I decided to replicate the double bill at home!
HOUSE BY THE RIVER is a very creepy, very well done thriller with Louis Hayward playing a man even more evil than his character in REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947), seen at the festival last weekend. Hayward plays Stephen Byrne, a frustrated writer who accidentally on purpose strangles his lovely young housemaid (Dorothy Patrick) while his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) is away from home.
Stephen's brother John (Lee Bowman) comes along just after Stephen does the deed, and Stephen eventually cajoles the sickened John into helping him hide the maid's body for Marjorie's sake. It's unspoken but clear that John carries a torch for the
sweet-natured Marjorie and would do anything to protect her. The body is dumped in the river...but the river has a way of eventually giving up its secrets.
John is tormented with guilt for covering up Stephen's crime, while Stephen increasingly reveals himself to be a man of the very worst sort.
This "old dark house" film has an ominous overtone from its opening moments, when Stephen and his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker), watch the carcass of a dead animal float past their waterfront homes. A black bug lands on Stephen's papers, and it's interesting to note that he takes more care to preserve the nasty-looking bug, dumping it into the garden, than he would take with the life of the maid who rejects his advances.
The movie is a great example of "less is more." Hayward's face is rather remarkable as he looks toward the window of the room where the maid is bathing, then listens to the water rattling through the plumbing as the tub drains. Nothing is shown, nothing is said, but Hayward's expression communicates every licentious thing Stephen is thinking. Hayward certainly excelled at playing disturbed individuals.
The performances are all quite good, especially Lee Bowman as the crippled brother who loves Marjorie. He also has the movie's best "gotcha" moment. Jane Wyatt was also excellent, in a softer performance than the wives she played in BOOMERANG! (1947) and PITFALL (1948) in the late '40s. Dorothy Patrick (FOLLOW ME QUIETLY) has a small role as the maid but makes an impression which hovers over the rest of the movie. A scene where Marjorie walks down the stairs, unknowingly repeating the maid's last moments, is downright spooky.
Jody Gilbert was very effective as John's highly annoying
housekeeper, who sounds for all the world like a nagging wife; Mrs. Ambrose sheds light on the housekeeper's attitude toward John in what might be the only lighthearted scene in the movie. The cast also includes Will Wright, Kathleen Freeman, Peter Brocco, and Howland Chamberlain.
The screenplay by Mel Dinelli was based on the novel THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER by A.P. Herbert. The movie was shot in black and white by Edward Cronjager, a seven-time Oscar nominee. It runs 88 minutes.
I watched HOUSE BY THE RIVER via Netflix streaming; it was a fine print. The Kino DVD can also be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix. It can also be rented for streaming from Amazon.