Made for Republic Pictures in 1950, House by the River has an appropriate feeling of cost-cutting and imposed thrift; the cheapness of the production fits the sleazy subject better than a bigger-budgeted version might have. Nobody (I guess) has ever mistaken it for one of Fritz Lang’s greatest achievements, but it has a smothering quality that is evoked with utter authority.
It is one of a small collection of films that exist in a very narrow sub-subgenre: movies about writers (or “being a writer”) that are ostensibly about something else. This subgenre includes Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which pretends to be about alcoholism, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which pretends to be about madness. These are films about men who desperately want to be writing, but are doing a horrible job of it, and, like many writers, invent elaborate methods of avoiding their work. Someday I will write a grand piece about this subgenre, but, you see, I am putting it off just now.
House by the River, the river of which is apparently Southern and the house of which is apparently Victorian – such details seem beside the point here – begins with writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward, perfectly cast) sitting on the back lawn of his large house, which looks out at the unnamed river. He is trying to write. He has had some sort of success before, but is receiving yet another rejection letter as we meet him. The busybody battle-ax who lives next door asks him about his writing efforts and failures, which is always the last thing a writer wants to be fucking asked about. It’s dusk, apparently, although most of the movie seems to exist in a dim-lit funk anyway; the scene looks amazing, like a visualization of depression.
In the river, a dead cow, or water buffalo or something, floats by. The battle-ax reminds us that the location’s proximity to the mouth of the river makes tidal effects pronounced, and this carcass, like other garbage the river has taken on, will pass back and forth for a period of days. What a marvelous image for Fritz Lang’s cinema, which is so often marked with guilty consciences (often with good reason) or other stains that can’t be forgotten. (1950: Jean Renoir was making The River, a beautiful film with the river as central image of the never-ending, non-judgmental flow of life; Lang’s river pushes filth back and forth.)
Yes, it might be a little obvious, but this is a stark film. Stephen and the battle-ax note the comeliness of his housemaid (Dorothy Patrick – Lang had wanted to cast a black actress), who announces she is taking a bath in an upstairs room; a few minutes later, as he approaches the house, he hears the bath water running down the drainpipe outside. Lang gives the pipe its own shot, as it gurgles. Stephen smiles, the pervert. There follows a murder, and Stephen’s lame (I mean literally, he has a bad leg) brother (Lee Bowman) getting implicated in the coverup, and Stephen’s wife (Jane Wyatt) becoming disillusioned by her husband’s oddly jubilant response to the disappearance of their maid.
Of course he’s jubilant: the case has brought him some public attention, and he gets to do a book signing. Plus, he can write again, as he prepares a new manuscript that will be based on the murder. This horrible person is a great match for Louis Hayward, whose face has the same crumbling seediness of the house, and whose voice is surely the secret of his ability to snow people. (He really looks like Orson Welles, and is just as shrewd as Welles about the voice-seduction.)
Lang’s visualization of the river is shivery, and there’s one horrifying scene where Stephen is whacking at the canvas sack in the water, trying to gaff it with a pole; he finally makes contact with it and tears the sack, whereupon the corpse’s long blond hair comes floating out, waving there in the river. Elsewhere, Lang relentlessly returns to a shot down a hallway or path, creating a funnel through which the characters are channelled. No escape, but then you knew that.