House by the River (1950)

Directed by Fritz Lang

 

A rich novelist, Stephen Byrne, who lives and works by a river, kills his attractive maid after she begins screaming following a drunken pass. The writer, with the help of his limping brother, loads the body into an old sack and the pair throws the body into the river. Unfortunately, the body comes back up and floats by the house days later. Despite desperate attempts by the brothers to get the body, the police end up recovering it.

Byrne, who uses the woman’s disappearance and killing for publicity for his books, realizes that his brother is the one who is going to be accused of the crime. Meanwhile, he begins writing a book about the crime in another attempt to cash in on the scandal. His wife and brother begin to fall in love, despite the fact that he has become the prime suspect.

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Critical response

When the film was first released, film critic for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther, panned the film, writing, “… we fear that neither the enlightenment nor the excitement that a customer might expect in such a flickering melodrama is provided by this film … the script by Mel Dinelli, based on a novel by A. P. Herbert, is shy on genuine melodrama, it provides little in the way of suspense (since you know that the killer is bound to get his) and it comes to a weak and cheerless end. It seems that the killer is a novelist and unconsciously writes an exposure in his new book. This is about as measly a way to catch a man as we know.”

More recently, film critic Tom Vick praised the film, writing, “Lang beautifully evokes the Victorian era with his customary attention to detail. Cinematographer Edward J. Cronjager’s low-key lighting fills the Byrnes mansion with appropriately gloomy shadows, and the moonlit river scenes make it seem as if nature itself is offended by the crime. Avant-garde composer George Antheil‘s haunting score is the perfect accompaniment to this chilling and unconventional exercise in suspense

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Will Wright

A dank and brooding Gothic from Fritz Lang

5 November 2001 | by bmacv (Western New York) – See all my reviews

House by the River is something of an anomaly; it’s more of an old-dark-house Gothic than the grittier dramas, from Fury to Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, which Fritz Lang made in his American period. (The location of this house is a worrisome and amateurism anomaly, too; the conventions, milieu and some of the accents suggests that it’s an English country estate, but much else argues that the film takes place in the U.S.) Would-be writer Louis Hayward, getting flirtatious with the maid in the absence of his wife (Jane Wyatt), accidently strangles her when she resists his advances. His brother (Lee Bowman) reluctantly agrees to cover up for him and help sink the body in the sinister, ever-present river that runs by the edge of the property; the resulting scandal of the disappeared servant bolsters the writer’s flagging career. When suspicion begans to gather around his innocent brother, Hayward, by now seriously demented, couldn’t be more pleased. But then Wyatt comes across a hidden manuscript; Hayward (you see), flushed by his phoney success, resolves to write “what he knows….”

Edward Cronjager’s heavily shaded cinematography and Georges Anthiel’s brooding score help fill out Lang’s dark, clammy vision, making the river — forever disgorging its flotsam and jetsam — a principal character in the action. House by the River is a good old-fashioned thriller, particularly in its Gothic closing scenes, but it’s not in a class with Lang’s films at the top of his American form, like Scarlet Street, The Big Heat or Human Desire.

hbtr

It’s people who should be blamed for the filth, not the river.

8/10
Author: Spikeopath from United Kingdom
7 March 2011

House by the River is directed by Fritz Lang and adapted by Mel Dinelli from A.P. Herbert’s novel The House on the River. It stars Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman & Dorothy Patrick. Music is by George Antheil and photography by Edward J. Cronjager.

Novelist Stephen Byrne (Hayward) makes a play for the house maid and unwittingly kills her when she repels his advances. Enlisting the help of his disabled brother, John (Bowman), to dispose of the body in the river, Stephen suddenly finds that the publicity surrounding the maid’s disappearance has put him in vogue again. In fact he finds his muse sufficiently stoked enough to craft another novel. But as easy as Stephen finds it easy to have no conscience, the opposite is the case with John, and with the river refusing to hold its secrets, something is going to give.

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Working out of Republic pictures, Lang refused to let the low budget production hamper his vision of a bleak Cain & Abel like Gothic-noir-melodrama. He did, however, meet some resistance when requesting that the maid be played by a black woman, which was quickly shot down by nervous executives at the famed “B” movie studio. House by the River is far from being among the best of Lang’s work, but the final product is still a triumph considering it’s basically a three character piece set virtually in just two locations. It scores high on eerie atmosphere and finds Lang dealing in moral bankruptcy/responsibility and the eye for an eye mentality. Ushered into the narrative, too, is a Lang fave of people irked by loving someone they can’t have. These themes allow the director to gloss over the simple script and dally in some truly arresting visuals.

Aided considerably by Cronjager’s (Desert Fury/CanyonPassage) chiaroscuro photography, Lang’s film is a lesson in how to maximise effect from limited sets. The actual house on the river, and that of the neighbour (resplendent with creepy scarecrow in garden), has a very disquiet feel to it, fronted by shimmering water that carries the dead carcass’ of animals, it’s a most haunting setting. And the eerie atmosphere continues inside the house, where shadows work their wonders and Antheil’s music sticks rigidly (and rightly) to the creaky house formula. The cast don’t pull up any trees, but they don’t need to. Hayward is perhaps too animated for a study in snide villainy, but it works and he has a nice line in visual mocking. The rest fall in line for what is required, with the best of the bunch being Ann Shoemaker as nosey neighbour Mrs. Ambrose.

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Once a hard to find film, House by the River is now easily accessible after gaining a DVD release (the print is fine, some age spotting and crackles, but completely watchable). It’s a film that is easily recommended to Lang and Gothic house based movie purists. Driven by a despicable protagonist and cloaked in a creepy noirish vibe, it deserves to now gain a better and more appreciative audience. 7.5/10

One of the Most Despicable Characters I Have Ever Seen

9/10
Author: Claudio Carvalho from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
10 January 2007

The unsuccessful writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) tries to force his servant Emily Gaunt (Dorothy Patrick) sexually while his wife Marjorie Byrne (Jane Wyatt) is visiting a friend and accidentally strangles her. His crippled brother John Byrne (Lee Bowman) coincidently comes to his house in that moment, and Stephen asks him to help to get rid of the corpse and avoid an scandal, since his wife would be pregnant. The naive and good John helps his brother to dump the body in the river nearby his house. Stephen uses the disappearance of Emily to blame her and promote his book. When the body is found by the police, all the evidences points to John, and he becomes the prime suspect of the murder.

“House by the River” is a dark and tense movie with one of the most despicable characters I have ever seen. Louis Hayward is perfect in the role of a scum, capable of killing, defaming, lying, falsely accusing, and maintaining cold blood. Jane Wyatt and Lee Bowman complete the efficient trio of lead cast. Fritz Lang uses with mastery the shadows and lights in the black and white cinematography as usual. The story is very tense, but the conclusion is very abrupt and quite conventional, moralist and commercial. In my opinion, this excellent film deserved a darker and amoral ending to become another masterpiece of this outstanding director. My vote is nine.

Title (Brazil): “Maldição” (“Curse”)

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The Sociopath and the River

8/10
Author: movingpicturegal from Los Angeles
29 March 2006

Intense period thriller about a writer, Stephen Byrne (played by Louis Hayward), who lives in – yeah, you guessed it – a house by the river; with lovely yard and gazebo, yet oddly dark as the film opens with the sky clouded, shadows cast across scenery, haunting music, a dead animal floating by on the glistening water, and a black widow spider crawling over his writing. We meet the attractive, blonde servant girl, Emily, who Stephen clearly has a lustful eye on from the get-go. By the next scene, he tries to kiss her coming down the stairs after bathing in his tub, and, well, she screams and he “accidentally” strangles her. With his brother assisting him, they put her body in a big sack and sink her in the river, then follows the cover-up of the murder.

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Well, this film is quite interesting, dark and suspenseful – there’s a lot going on here. The print I saw looked strikingly full of sharp black and white contrast. The photography in this makes the film menacing with blackened rooms lit only by candle light casting dark, sharp shadows across the walls, some extreme camera angles up stairs and down halls, shots of faces seen only in mirrors, extreme close-ups, and sweat dripping on the face of a nervous murderer.

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