Blu-ray Review: House by the River | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, August 9th, 2020  

House by the River

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

May 26, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Fritz Lang has been long and rightfully proclaimed as one of the genius directors of early cinema. From his early expressionist masterpieces to his career in Hollywood progeniting film noir on studio backlots, he managed to make the majority of his oeuvre completely iconic. His creativity is not only due to the subject matter and style by which he told his stories, but also how he overcame the numerous suffocating restrictions placed on him throughout his career -- spanning from the Nazis, rose-tinted critics and the Hays Code, to Joseph McCarthy. By the time the 1950s rolled around, Lang had already been credited on thirteen features in America and was seen as a director past his prime. However the case may have been, Lang released two films in 1950, the war film American Guerrilla in the Philippines, and the crime film House by the River.

The wealthy novelist Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) lives with his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) and housemaid Emily Gaunt (Dorothy Patrick) at the titular house by a river. While Stephen writes novels which never get published, he spends a considerable time drinking, entertaining his neighbors, and eyeing up Emily. One afternoon, in a drunken stupor before a party, Stephen attempts to forcefully kiss Emily, and while she tries to scream for help, he strangles her with his bare hands. Soon afterwards, John Byrne (Lee Bowman) arrives, and is coerced into helping his brother dispose of the corpse. The remainder of the film is a continuous succession of events which threaten this secret as Stephen starts capitalizing on Emily’s “disappearance” to further his career, testing the thin alliance between the brothers and their individual sanity.

Fritz Lang was offered this project by Republic Studios, and it wasn’t something he was initially too thrilled about, though after the “unqualified disaster” of his last film The Secret Beyond the Door (1947) he had severely limited options for work. He was quoted, speaking of the original novel by A. P. Herbert, “there are certain things in it I liked,” and made House by the River for a pittance on cheap sets with an almost no-name cast. The film released to weak reviews and a box office return of which I could find no verifiable data. While American Guerrilla in the Philippines would go on to rake in over $2.5 Million, eventually be preserved by the Academy Film Archive, and would be a film Lang would allegedly deny ever making (in his later life), House by the River has only been revived in recent years as a hidden gem amongst the director’s filmography.

While the film’s narrative is structured very similar to classic silent European melodrama -- its plot mostly a string of sneaky glances at high society gossiping and behaving badly -- the character archetypes and overall tone are hardily American. The desire and bravado of the “self-made man” to be recognized for their individuality is etched into Hayward’s performance; an awakening of warped personal potential through reprehensible destruction. I often found myself drawing mental parallels between Stephen Byrne and Jack Torrence from The Shining, which is something the film benefits from to an extreme.While every performance is on a sliding scale of quality, Hayward, Bowman, Jody Gilbert as Flora Bantam, and Ann Shoemaker as Mrs. Ambrose were the stand-outs of the cast for some emotional moments, but mainly for the camp they bring to the movie without making it awkward or detrimental to the suspense. This is made possible mainly due to George Antheil’s fantastic musical score, even though it would get ridiculous with out-of-place whimsy for a few scattershot moments.

While there are numerous social criticisms and introspective moments which define this sickly cast of people, especially how gossip and misinformation can be weaponized, the whole film can be summed up in one sentence which was uttered by Stephen at the start of the film when speaking to Mrs. Ambrose, “people should be blamed for the filth, not the river.” It’s an apt metaphor by which to critique the main character, as he consistently blames external sources for all of his misfortunes without ever taking responsibility for the filth he is responsible for, especially Emily’s murder. As a result, you want them to get caught, to face retribution. This exploration is all compounded by Edward Cronjager’s iconic cinematography, which he had used to define film noir since the early 1940s. While anyone can see the low-budget seams (the painted backdrops, edges of some sets, obvious changes between second unit footage), there is a sinister undertone to almost everything that happens, and the film is a case study in garden-variety suspense.

While this movie has existed on DVD since 2005, Kino Lorber has rereleased the work on Blu-ray with a couple supplemental features. While the static menu is simple and doesn’t convey much love for the project, the new 2K master is buttressed by a fascinating audio commentary by the phenomenal author and historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, an interview with the the highly influential late producer Pierre Rissient, optional English subtitles, and a few Kino Lorber trailers. While it is not the most robust delivery from Kino, it manages to make the extra content it does include worth the asking price, because House by the River definitely is a hidden gem of b-movie history.



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