I’m going to skip the usual Q&A setup with these reviews of 60+ year old movies and just dive right in: House By The River is a suspenseful albeit plodding story of murder and loyalty and occasional hurt feelings. It is directed by Fritz Lang, the genius behind Metropolis and two movies previously covered here, Scarlet Street and The Woman In The Window. (How is a movie both “suspenseful” and “plodding?” Read on.)
The movie introduces us to Stephen, a novelist struggling to write a novel from the scenic river view of his backyard. His neighbor is an elderly woman who complains about a dead animal carcass floating past their homes, but Stephen is too busy looking at the windows of his home, where his cute housemaid Emily is taking a bath and getting ready to go out for the night. Stephen is married, but he thinks that Emily taking a sample of his wife’s perfume was a green light to hit on her, and tries to seduce her as she comes down the stairs. Emily freaks out, and starts to scream. Stephen starts choking her, concerned that his elderly neighbor is hearing the screams in the yard and that’s the best way to shut Emily up. The elderly woman walks back into her home, and a relieved Stephen lets go of Emily, but she falls to the ground dead, because guess what bro, you killed her.
Speaking of brothers, that’s when Stephen’s brother John walks in. Or rather, he tries to, but the door is locked, and Stephen hides behind a credenza or something. In a great bit of staging, Stephen goes to look to see who had come to the door, only for the camera to show us John trying to enter through the backway. Stephen can’t hide Emily’s body from John, and convinces John to help him get rid of it like nothing had happened. John starts nagging already, “I’ve bailed you out of trouble enough!” Sheesh, what kind of bro are you? Help a bro out. John reluctantly agrees, hearing that the death was accidental and this scandalous manslaughter would upset Stephen’s wife Marjorie, who is pregnant and easily faints or something. So the two throw Emily’s body in a sack and toss it in the river.
It took me a while to notice, but the setting of this movie is sometime at the turn of the 20th century, after phones and record players (phonograms?) were invented. I just thought that Stephen & supporting characters were stuffy rich people, and that John dressed like a mortician. It was only after Marjorie comes home and Stephen is helping her get dressed do I realize that they’re not old fashioned, this is just set in an almost Victorian time.
Emily’s parents notice that she’s missing and ask the police to check it out, and Stephen has plenty of lies about Emily being a wild child and running off. With everyone talking about it, Stephen uses the opportunity to hawk one of his mystery books in the papers. That’s good marketing! Marjorie notices that John seems bummed out, but Stephen is like “oh he just probably feels guilty because he doesn’t have as hot maid to seduce and accidentally murder,” or something charmingly dismissive like that. John is not resting as easy over their crime, as he has learned his maid had written his name on pretty much everything, so in the river there’s a dead girl in a sack labeled “property of John.”
Stephen still struggles to write his latest novel, however, and while suffering more writer’s block, he notices the sack float by his backyard. He tries to row after it, and when he does finally find it stuck to some branches, he wades out in an attempt to bring it to shore with an oar, but ends up opening the sack letting Emily’s hair slip out, as the sack is freed and the corpse floats into town. Whoops!
From there, it’s a scandal, and everyone thinks John did it because of the “property of” tag. He’s not going to give up his brother, because he has no proof, and his brother shows no guilt other than occasionally seeing a fish hop out of water, in the actual water when he dumped the body and then in a tell-tale heart sort of way where he imagines it flop out of mirrors. Marjorie feels sad for John, and even tells Stephen that John seemed suicidal, even though John told her that wasn’t the case, as that would make him look more guilty. So Stephen pretends to slip out of the house, but sneaks into his writing room and pulls out a pair of Emily’s earings, presumably to plant on John when he attempts to drown him. Which he thinks he does, and heads back home.
However, John walks into Stephen’s home very much alive, and Stephen freaks out, only to be started by an ghostly apparition of Emily in a flowing dress, which is just a drape from a drafty room that actually wraps itself around John’s neck, choking him. But he trips over the guardrail of his staircase, and dies.
That’s pretty much it. Not exactly noir, more Hitchcock set up than anything else. It reminds me of Vertigo and a movie I saw on MST3K called Tormented, which this preceded by several years, where the character’s guilty conscience gets the best of them and imagines their victims coming back to kill them (well, not so much Vertigo, but definitely Tormented). I also couldn’t help but think of the Robert Zemeckis ‘horror’ movie What Lies Beneath, where Harrison Ford tries to console Michelle Pfeiffer who is haunted by the ghost of a woman in the lake behind their home. (What Lies Beneath is not a great movie, but it’s a different role for Ford, has some interesting moments, and was written by Clark Gregg, who most of us recognize these days as Agent Coulsen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)
Is it good? Meh, it’s a little slow, mostly where John broods over his guilt and is rude to his help, and Marjorie goes back and forth between brothers, trying to decipher John’s sullenness that differs from his usual sadness, all the while politely nodding along to Stephen’s secretiveness and over-explanations over his recent activities. John only figures out that his brother is a lying sociopath like, I don’t know, immediately, which you’d think as brothers he’d have noticed years ago. I mean, it’s MURDER. Everyone else takes Stephen at his word, which honestly makes me hate him even more, so the movie works in that aspect.
It’s a great looking movie, and often feels like I’m watching someone’s vivid albeit black & white dream. The river is lush, foggy, and not the place for aristocrats. It’s a gross place, even the docks for the rich people’s boats look run down and there’s a lot of garbage floating past, but it still looks hauntingly beautiful when Stephen clumsily rows through it. Doors often open pitch black rooms, revealing the silhouette of a character who needs to enter and explore it. People walk out of shadows but their appearance is still obfuscated, and the scene’s protagonist doesn’t know who they are addressing. Stephen & Marjorie’s home looks like a complicated labyrinth on the inside, with a long hallway separating their private rooms.
Definitely check it out, for the tense build up between Stephen and Emily…then maybe have some coffee during the idle chit chat about feelings, Stephen’s over the top lies that attempt to manipulate everyone, and gossip from the help that serves as exposition.