Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fritz Lang | House by the River

the creak of the staircase
by Douglas Messerli

Mel Dinelli (screenplay, based on the novel by A. P. Herbert), Fritz Lang (director) House by the River / 1950

The film House by the River is grade B melodrama (made by the near-broke Republic pictures)
that aspires to be grade A moral drama. Originally, its director—the once great Fritz Lang—wanted to have the maid, killed by writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), to be black, which would have made an important statement of American miscegenation when he attempts to kiss (and possibly rape) her; but the heads of the studio refused to allow the maid to be of color, casting the beautiful Dorothy Patrick in the role instead. So all that Lang was left with was the Gaslight-like Victorian melodrama, in which the now-white maid puts up such a ruckus, possibly being heard by Stephen’s nosy next-door neighbor, Mrs. Ambrose (the wonderful Ann Shoemaker), that, in trying to quiet the girl, he accidentally chokes her to death

       A failure as a novelist, Stephen has evidently been in trouble several times, forcing his elder brother, John (Lee Bowman) to help him out. Although Lang and his writer Mel Dinelli don’t bother to tell us what kind of difficulties from which John has helped save his brother (we know only that he gave up most of the family inheritance so that Stephen might live the life of a writer), we might guess that the elder man’s limp might have something to do with it (why else give his character a limp?). Nonetheless—after Stephen lies to him about his wife, insisting that he needs help simply for the sake of Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), who he claims is expecting a baby—helps him get rid the body in the river that swirls about Stephen’s house.
       In the first scene Mrs. Ambrose, who lives in another “house on the river” next-door, complains that the river keeps bringing up unpleasant things in its currents, particularly a dead cow who has been rushed down river only to show up again and again (the two-directional currents make little but dramatic sense); so we know, even though the men try to anchor the girl in the sack (a large wood bag which has been borrowed from Stephen’s brother) to the river bottom, that it will eventually wash up again as well. 
     When it does, Stephen takes out a boat in a long scene of swirling waters and driftwood to retrieve it, without success. And, eventually, the police spot it. John’s long-time servant has neatly sewed his name into the sack, thus making it look like he has been the murderer. 
      Stephen—who through the publicity of the murder, has revived his career through the sale of a former novel and is now writing a work about his own crime—says nothing, further embittering John, as the trial proceeds. John’s maid, recently fired, testifies against him, revealing her anger over the changes she has observed in his household manner. But again, Mrs. Ambrose, intercedes, scolding the judge and court for not being able to see that the servant has testified in retribution for the behavior of the man she has formerly loved. And John is found not-guilty.
      If all this sounds a bit creaky—and it is—Lang nicely diverts our attention by focusing on the psychological changes in both brothers, particularly through Stephen’s increasing madness and his gradual abandonment of his beautiful wife, to whom John, secretly loving her for years, becomes a confidant.

     The director, who has long been interested in deep shadows, pulls out all his tricks, demonstrating the broiling river even in the billow of the white curtains in the Byrne mansion, a black-and-white rendition of what Douglas Sirk would later brilliantly recreate in technicolor six years later in Written on the Wind. In fact, there are several interesting parallels between that film and Lang’s noirish work.
       We know from the beginning that the disintegrating Stephen will eventually get his comeuppance, and when he returns home to find wife reading his new novel, which also reveals his own guilt, we are not at all surprised with the necessarily pat ending. And the trip down that path has been so dramatically thrilling and so beautifully imaged, we can almost forgive the final creak of the staircase.
      Finally, the film’s wonderful score is by the avant-garde composer George Antheil.

Los Angeles, November 23, 2016

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