“Sometimes cheap perfume can be very exciting.”
House By the River is a lesser-known title from master director Fritz Lang. It’s touted as film noir, and that will probably help sell copies, but it’s more accurate to describe this wonderful film as a Gothic psychological drama.
The story is set in the late 1800s and concerns unsuccessful writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) who’s married to Marjorie (Jane Wyatt). After the return of yet another rejected manuscript, Stephen attacks and murders his attractive blonde maid, Emily (Dorothy Patrick). As he struggles to dispose of the body, his brother John (Lee Bowman) arrives. John, a lonely taciturn bachelor, loves and admires Marjorie, and Stephen exploits this knowledge to coerce John into helping him cover up his crime. Stephen cunningly realizes that John is extremely vulnerable, and instead of being indebted to John, Stephen gradually reverses the power relationship.
The plot maximizes the psychological elements at play while examining the aftereffects of the maid’s disappearance. In a small town, the maid’s attractiveness combined with her social standing and mysterious disappearance result in a web of gossip. The main characters all fit their roles well, but Louis Hayward steals the film. Stephen is very social and popular, and he can charm a room full of fawning women. But there’s an insane, crafty side to his character. Stephen’s expressions alter in the twinkling of an eye from benign conviviality to reflect his evil, dastardly plans.
House By the River is proof yet again of Fritz Lang’s talent as a director. One magnificent scene shows water draining from the bath, and somehow this simple event assumes fantastic, ominous proportions. Lang also includes some masterful scenes of Stephen alone on the river. The river that flows outside of Stephen’s home seems to possess a willful life of its own, and Stephen goes to battle with the river for its stubborn refusal to surrender to his plans–Marvelous stuff and Fritz Lang fans won’t be disappointed.