Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tonight's Movie: House By the River (1950)

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.


Blogger dfordoom said...

A Fritz Lang movie I haven't seen. I'm going to have to find a copy now!

2:35 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Louis made this film following Pirates of Capri in Italy. Pirates was at the very least a success within the context of its aims. He had the opportunity to remain and repeat that success, but in his words, Lang wants me. House By The River was moderately well received by the press but not by the public. Following the indifferent response Louis signed a four film contract with Columbia for middle of the road costumes pictures beginning with Fortunes of Captain Blood. Produced by Harry Joe Brown, the idea was to do something along the lines Scott-Brown were doing with westerns, but in period dress. The results were just okay. I thought Jane Wyatt's performance extremely sensual. There is a sequence in which she extends her arms upward from a seated position toward Louis which is the real goods. As for Lee Bowman, I knew and liked him enormously. But, after House By The River he was on television playing Ellery Queen. This thing was sort of, if not a career killer, something pretty near that.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Sounds good and it has Lee Bowman whom I want to see more of.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Barrylane, it's interesting that two actors you knew costarred in this film. As you may possibly remember, I particularly like Lee Bowman, who starred in one of my favorite films, TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (1945).

DforDoom and Vienna, hope you can check this film out, I enjoyed it very much. An engrossing period thriller.

Review of Lang's SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR coming as soon as I can finish it. :)

Best wishes,

10:11 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura -- I met Lee as a consequence of knowing Louis. During that period in which I acted as Personal Manager, Louis thought I could be useful to some of his professional friends. I was always interested in meeting and knowing these people but not necessarily working with them professionally.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I like Hayward too. One of those second-tier stars I find enormously appealing, like Robert Preston or Dennis Morgan. I think he makes a great swashbuckling hero, but was really impressed by his turn in Columbia's "Ladies in Retirement" (1941), a small gem of a film and Hayward is especially good there.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A beautifully shot movie whose theme is pure Lang. I quite like this film although it suffers for me by having such an unsympathetic lead character. Hayward played the part just fine, but his character is such an outright heel that you're left with no-one to really root for.


1:56 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Kevin, thanks for the mention of LADIES IN RETIREMENT, I haven't seen that one yet. I especially like Dennis Morgan too. :)

Colin, I agree that Hayward plays a total sleaze in this! I did enjoy rooting for Lee Bowman who is a somewhat overlooked actor I like.

Best wishes,

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just had my first viewing of it right now, and I enjoyed it immensely. I'll never forget Louis Hayward in this role, although I thought that all the performances were terrific. And I also sympathized with Lee Bowman's character.

While I wasn't bothered by the few dubbing goofs, the handling and presentation of Stephen's fall disappointed me. However, that was the only thing that did.

Thank you prompting me to watch it, Laura. I need to catch up with more Lang.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm so glad to know you checked this movie out, David -- thanks for sharing your impressions!

Like you, there is more Lang I need to catch up with! :)

Best wishes,

6:35 PM  

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