The Mubi Cinematheque: House by the River (1950)
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Fritz Lang made some of the greatest films that survived the silent era. His movies M and Metropolis are picked apart, studied, and slobbered over by film nuts even now. With good reason. His films seemed to evoke malaise in deeply personal, paranoid, and claustrophobic ways.
House by the River is not in the same league as those movies but it has elements that will remind the audience that they are watching a master at work. Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) is a struggling writer who kills his housekeeper Emily as he was attempting to sexually assault her. His hapless brother John stumbles in and, after much pleading, helps dispose of the body in the titular river. John alludes to prior jams he’s helped Stephen out of in the past, which is one of the more subtle bits of exposition. It’s one of the best written moments because it gives the idea that Stephen was perhaps always a little unhinged with a short fuse.
It’s with Stephen where the movie suffers. As portrayed by Hayward, he is a little too off the deep end at all times. There is no nuance to this performance and it renders it cartoonish. It would be fine for him to inject theatricality to the role because he is a self-involved writer with delusions of grandeur, but it’s always cranked up to 11. It works at times as he attempts to put on a friendly face for the people around him for whom he clearly feels nothing but contempt. An early party scene makes best use of his cracked mirror of sanity. But even in the scene where he throws himself after Emily, and especially in the incredibly rushed final scenes, he comes off more like a bargain bin version of Christian Slater (who is a poor man’s Jack Nicholson at the best of times). It would have worked more naturally if Stephen Byrne actually seemed as harmless and normal as his neighbour, Mrs. Ambrose, believes.
The performances from Jane Wyatt and Lee Bowman, as Stephen’s wife Marjorie and his brother John, carry a little more human pathos and depth to them, even though they’re mired by one overly melodramatic scene between the two of them late in the film. Still, they do much better. John, the conflicted brother, knows he’s done the wrong thing but can’t quit on his family.
House by the River becomes a meditation on guilt. Many scenes revolve around the notion of being tried in the public eye. Even if someone has not been actually convicted of a crime, he or she may be ruined in the eyes of a community simply for being accused or suspected. Many films go after themes like this, and many of them do so in a more sophisticated manner with richer characters. The revelations Stephen has from believing he has gotten away with murder and weaseled his way into the public eye as a writer at the same time could be interesting, but instead he asks “don’t the ends justify the means?” It should be accepted by this point that, yes, Stephen is nutty and most definitely a sociopath. No, he’s likely not attempting to convince anyone of this stance, and doesn’t even believe it himself, but the line and how it’s delivered is awkward and flat.
The scene in question ends on a high note, as many do, because of the visual flare. Director of photography Edward Cronjager (Cimarron and Heaven Can Wait) helped generate some wonderful scenes mired in darkness and odd angles. More than the subject matter itself, the look of the film set an tone to keep audiences off balance and uneasy. The monster barely underneath the surface of Stephen’s facade is allowed to project out of the shadows. Without the expert cinematography, his character would have come across as even sillier. As it is, his menace is given shape in spite of the performance.
In addition to House by the River, Lang’s silent marathon Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler has also been added to Mubi. If you have nearly four hours to kill in the next couple weeks, that could be one to check out as well. Even lesser Lang like House by the River will have enough flourishes of fascination. It’s by no means a poor film, just one that could have benefited by a stronger lead and a more finely tuned script.