With House by the River, Fritz Lang’s forked acid-tongue was curled up into his iron-bolted mouth by Hollywood execs none too interested in some of his more provocative stylistic or thematic ideas (of really doubling-down on baroque imagery-of-the-mind or exposing oppressive gendered, racialized, and classed power dynamics in America). But, even though he was forced to neuter his mission and his mind with films like House by the River, Lang’s eyes were as sharp as ever, possibly even hungrier due to his sometimes-livid attitude toward Hollywood and the poverty-row quality of this production in particular. The once gilded director of four hour German epics, monolithic slabs of pure cinema in their day, was now a mercenary for hire. But, hey, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur produced the two best horror films of the 1940s with next to no budget, so why couldn’t Lang knock out a corker of a film noir?
Turns out he can, more or less. Even with no money Lang’s visuals churn with a queasy expressiveness and an anxiety that is both lyrically suggestive and silently terrifying. Social critique is less pervasive than Lang had intended, but the film remains primed for potency, particularly when the titular river (and the titular house) make their grand entrances. The former appears when gargoyle-like ladykiller Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) tries to screw his maid and accidentally kills her while brutishly squeezing her throat shut while trying to keep her from breathing. Seeking help from his brother John (Lee Bowman), they throw the limp body in the river and leave it for forgotten while Stephen, a writer, devilishly uses the story for his new book. Of course, the devil has a few tricks of his own, and the body of the maid (Dorothy Patrick) arises once again, circling around the river positively begging to be discovered by the police.
The situation is primordial and luridly mordant to begin with, but Lang throws in a morality crisis for good measure, as Steven realizes the police have reason to imprison his brother for the crime, the very brother who happens to be falling for Stephen’s wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt). The morality play is, as scrawled out by Mel Dinelli’s pen, not nearly as pungent as some of Lang’s other films, but his filmmaking is as bluntly alluring and bristling with maniacal malevolence as ever. Although the dead woman floating around the river has the cheeky quality of a great Hitchcockian comic-absurdist tease, Lang lenses the dead woman’s hair, floating through the river like a phantom reminder of past deeds, with a diabolical eye. He also reserves the luscious chiaroscuro mostly for the river itself, the contrast in the visual quality externalizing the tension between the domestic world and the otherworldly river that imperils it.
Lang only has a few sets for the titular house, but he unsettles the primary staircase by infusing the altitude of respective characters with the shifting power dynamics and anxieties of each person as suspicions and threats meet and greet up and down the steps. Elsewhere, shots of Hayward squeezing his wife in magnetic, animalistic attraction refresh our memories of the sinister, power-hungry, lecherous brute he really is, a snake-charmer who also happens to be the snake. At one point, even nominal hero John wields Marjorie’s knitting string like he’s about to fashion a noose to seduce or kill her with, temporarily no less disturbed than brother dearest even though he is elsewhere the “good guy” of the two. The lacerating, angled shadows are the real wringer though, threatening the house’s sanity and entombing the increasingly maddened Stephen in externalizations of his sociopathic dementedness. And, of course, Lang’s camera skulks and prowls and bumps in the night as well as it ever did, flexing stylistic muscles, visualizing skews in the characters’ fragile mental logic, and slinking around the characters’ feet as they step forward with trepidation. In a wonderful final formal touch, Lang resurrects the translucent ghost of the maid for a beyond-the-grave feat of retribution and revenge that establishes the Daphne Du Maurier connection.
Ultimately, House is an unambitious film, not exactly a work that rouses artistic divinity out of the blasphemy and damnation of its subject matter. It does not best Lang’s German masterworks, not does it even have the courage to topple his nastiest American films like You Only Live Once. Still, if this is essentially a malnourished alley cat slinking by hungry for provocation, Lang’s consummate skill ensures this feral feline of a film is dark enough to stagger us and seal the deal.