Tuesday, August 11, 2009

House by the River

Fritz Lang must have loved guilt. In his films, we are confronted by someone who does something and is tortured by guilt (Scarlet Street, for example), or someone who is falsely accused of a crime (like Spencer Tracy in Fury). The Blue Gardenia features a character that mistakenly believes she has committed a murder. In M, Peter Lorre knows he is a child murderer, but is unable to stop himself. It goes on and on.

Lang’s terrific but little seen House by the River is another variation on the guilt thing. In it, two brothers get involved in a murder – One directly, the other as an accessory and this sets into play an elaborate dance of guilt between the two.

Steven Byrne (Louis Hayward) is an unsuccessful writer who has designs on his attractive young maid. An early scene has her releasing the water from her bath, while he stands outside and lewdly listens to the water going down the drain. We’ve already learned that his wife is in town, so this is a smart little way of establishing Steven as a louse.

Lang was one of the major figures who carried the German expressionist style of filmmaking to America and wedded it to Film Noir. The Byrne house is a prime example of expressionism’s use of set architecture to create a nightmarish mood. The house is full of large, gothic windows, high doorways, and a magnificent, shadowy staircase. The murder makes full use of all these elements. The maid slowly comes down the stairs, shot from the waist down. Steven waits for her in the darkness below. Byrne’s planned sexual advance is met with resistance, and in a struggle to silence her he accidentally strangles her.

That’s where the second part of the puzzle gets introduced. Steven’s brother John (Lee Bowman) comes to the door in the aftermath of the murder, and his first instinct is to go to the police. Steven begs him off of that idea, telling him that his wife is pregnant. John’s demeanor changes perceptively when the wife Marjorie is mentioned, and he agrees to go along with the cover-up. The two dispose of the body on the river, but we’ve already had a hint that it won’t be quite that easy.

Upon his return home, Steven encounters Marjorie, and this scene effectively affirms Steven’s guilt. Steven is at the foot of the stairs, checking himself in the mirror when Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) comes out of her bedroom. Lang shoots the scene identically to the earlier scene with the maid, as Marjorie slowly comes down the stairs, her face hidden by shadow. Steven is awash in panic as her relives the earlier encounter.

I mentioned that we already had been given a hint that there would be complications to the disposal of the body. One of the very first images in the film is of a dead cow floating back up the river, and sure enough the body comes back, bringing a damning clue. The maid was found in a sack with John Byrnes’ name on it.

An inquest into the murder (overseen by a judge wearing a Lang-esque monocle) is held, and John, nervous and torn with guilt, comes across as surly and challenging. In short, he looks very guilty. Steven is happy with the presumption that John will be suspected as the killer, although he outwardly announces that HE thinks his brother is innocent. There is the suggestion that the investigating officer thinks that Steven has something to hide, and there’s a mysterious little bit where he intentionally rolls a pencil off his table in the middle of Steven’s testimony. This plot point goes nowhere, however.

The two brothers are polar opposites, and the film takes a bit of time to flesh out the relationship between them. Steven is a failed writer, but lives in smug opulence. John has an accounting business, but is a lonely cripple. It turns out that Stevens’ wealth comes from an inheritance, which John acceded so his brother could work towards becoming a writer. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, John states “I’ll help you, like I have so often before!” There’s a history there: The vain, selfish brother gets into trouble, and the quiet, decent one gets him out of it.

Then there’s the matter of the two men’s relationship with Marjorie. Steven is her husband, but it’s apparent that John is more of a soul mate to her. It’s with her that his hard edges disappear, and she is the one who realizes how lonely he really is. When we remember back to the aftermath of the murder, it was the evoking of her name that got John to go along with his brother’s deceit. And Steven knew that it would.

There’s another element to this as, well, one that tends to stretch the limits of incredulity. As the case progresses, Stevens writing career begins to take off, owing to the publicity the case is receiving. It’s not unnoticed by his wife that he has no qualms about benefiting from a murder. There’s more: He is secretly writing a new novel called “Death on the River”, which is a retelling of his murder, with the names changed. Why he would plan on publishing a novel that would essentially be a confession is beyond me, but it serves an essential purpose to the plot – Marjorie finds it and discovers the truth.

Lang’s filmography is intriguing. He is best known for his masterpieces M and Metropolis, and his Dr. Mabuse films, all made in Germany. His resume, however, is filled with excellent lesser-known work, primarily his Film Noirs from the 40’s and 50’s. Virtually everything the man did is worth a look.

House by the River was released in 1950, flopped at the box office, and promptly sank from sight. It was actually believed to be lost until French filmmaker Pierre Rissient rediscovered it in the mid 1970’s. The Kino DVD includes an interview with Rissient detailing how this masterpiece came back from the dead.




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