By 1950, Fritz Lang's career was on the rocks. 1948's Secret Behind the Door was a commercial flop, the latest in a string, and he had gotten the reputation with both producers and actors as being very difficult to work with. No longer able to get work with the major studios, Lang moved to the Poverty Row movie producers and made 1950's The House by the River for Republic. This rarely seen film has often been lumped in with Lang's noir pictures, most probably by critics who haven't had a chance to screen it, but it isn't. It is a capable, if unextraordinary, gothic thriller that has now been released by on DVD by Kino. This fine looking film will please Lang fans who haven't had a chance to see this film, but it won't win him any converts.
Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) is a philandering hack writer who's books don't sell. He spends much of his time drinking and working on his next big novel while collecting rejection slips. One evening he spies the new maid Emily (Dorothy Patrick) taking a bath. As she comes down stairs he makes a drunken pass at her and when she resists, he accidently strangles her. Lying to his brother John (Lee Bowman) in order to get his help, the pair put the body in a bag and sink it in the river.
Why the body eventually washes up on shore, Stephen has no compunctions about tacitly implying that his brother was the murderer. The sales of his books have gone up since the scandal hit the papers after all, and he can't go to jail just as he's making good.
This is one of Langs minor films. It's easy to tell that this is one he's just doing it by the numbers. The plot unfolds in a very predictable way, with few surprises to keep viewers interested. Since the murderer is known from the beginning, there isn't any mystery, and Lang doesn't build up any suspense in this film at all.
This movie also lacks the dark and dirty realism that many of his other films possess. The cheap looking sets have a lot to do with that. Many of the rooms look like the walls would fall down if an actor bumped into them, and the exterior shots are obviously sound stages. The scenes where Stephen is trying to retrieve Emily's resurfaced body are almost comical. The budget, both in money and time, was very tight, and this shows up on the screen.
But even a minor Lang film has its moments, and this one is no exception. The lighting is very good, the houses are filled with shadows and occasional bright splashes of light. This help to create a mood but it's not enough to make up for the bland story. Lang also creates some lovely shots, especially early in the film. The scene where Stephen, dead woman at his feet, looks out the window in the door and see's his brothers eye is startling and a bit eerie, and the climactic shot of John near the end of the movie is very effective too.
The acting was about par for what you'd expect from a 1950's Republic picture: not horrible, but not very good either. Louis Hayward was capable for most of the picture but does over do it in a few scenes becoming a little hammy at the end. Lee Bowman is fine as the brother, but wasn't as convincing as he could have been. Also keep an eye out for Carl Switzer ( "Alfalfa" in tbe Our Gang comedies) who has a very brief speaking role.
The two channel mono audio track sounds fine for a picture of this age. The dialog is easy to discern and there isn't any distortion. There is a light amount of hiss in the background, but it's only noticeable during the quiet parts and never becomes annoying. An average sounding disc.
Kino used a fine grain print from the National Film and Television Archive in London for this transfer. Although the print hasn't been restored it looks very good. The contrast is excellent and the details show up with good definition. The lines are tight and the print has few defects. There are some occasional spots but these are minor. This is a very good looking disc.
This disc also has a 7 ½- minute interview with film maker Pierre Rissient talks about the film (in which he admits it's not Lang's best) and how he discovered the print. There is also a short photo gallery of lobby cards and production photos.
This is a rare film, and I'm glad that Kino has released it. It's
not Lang's best work, but even this unexceptional film has its charms.
The plot isn't very engrossing and it contains few surprises, but the look
of the movie adds to it's appeal. Being a minor work, this will mostly
appeal to people who are already fans of Lang's films. To those this
good looking DVD is recommended.