Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker
Written by: Mel Dinelli, based on a novel by A.P. Herbert
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 88
Date: 03/25/1950
IMDB

House by the River (1950)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Noir Trek

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Alfred Hitchcock thrilled audiences with his tales of suspense for six decades. Another director, Fritz Lang, was two jumps in front of him, yet he never received quite the same measure of fame. Perhaps this is because Lang ventured into even darker corners than Hitchcock. Hitchcock was content with wry little moments of black humor, while Lang never provided such comforts. Lang's heroes were often innocents who, for no reason at all, are trapped by fate.

Two of Lang's darkest works of film noir, have been newly released on DVD. Scarlet Street (1945) has fallen into the public domain and is already widely available on inferior, bargain-priced discs, while House by the River (1950) is an ultra-rare Lang, barely seen in any form for over fifty years. Both are now available on high-quality Kino DVDs, priced at $24.95 each. (See www.kino.com for details.)

Set at the beginning of the 20th century, House by the River plays like a kind of gothic murder romance. A struggling, but snide and hard-drinking writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) tries to seduce his pretty new maid and accidentally strangles her. He convinces his decent and physically disabled brother John (Lee Bowman) to help him get rid of the corpse. But the river has a habit of drifting its debris back and forth, and the evidence won't stay gone. To make matters worse, John is in love with Stephen's long-suffering wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt).

Lang made the film at Republic Studios, a "B" picture palace known for cheap movies, but also for giving artists like Orson Welles (Macbeth) and John Ford (The Quiet Man) complete freedom within the boundaries of cost. He used his authority to create a quiet, gothic atmosphere between the murky river and the creepy house; he builds suspense slowly and patiently and uses unexpected elements against us. It's a subtle achievement, but a great one.

This review was written for the 2005 DVD release. In 2020, Kino Lorber gave us a gorgeous new Blu-ray edition. It boasts a crisp, black-and-white transfer and a clean audio track. Historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a commentary track, and there's a vintage interview with producer/historian Pierre Rissient, who helped rescue the film, as well as a batch of film noir-related Kino Lorber trailers.

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