Fritz Lang’s Materful Noir Comes Home.
DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG/1950
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JANUARY 14, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
The draining of her bath water in the downspout on the side of the stately house catches the attention of Mr. Stephen Byrne on his way in for the evening. He knows the vulnerability within and decides to seize upon it. After all… she owes him.
Emily Gaunt was just a lowly servant girl with her whole life ahead of her (as played perfectly though fleetingly by Dorothy Patrick). So what if she snuck a little bit of the missus’ expensive perfume following her bath in their usually off-limits master bath. (A special permission, you see. The servant bathroom was out of order). So what if she liked to hit the town after hours. (What else is a lively young lady to do out in this remote coastal town?).
But it all comes to an abrupt end before she ever even gets properly dressed. Resisting Stephen while his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) was out proves most fatal. Suddenly, Stephen- still a man of some literary stature, even if it’s diminished in recent years- has a dead girl on his hands. He’s been in pickles before, but this one trumps them all. And before the reality of his actions can fully settle, someone’s at the door….!
Made during director Fritz Lang’s extremely modest-by-comparison American Noir period (remember, Lang is the filmmaker who, in Germany, brought forth some of the grandest effects-driven spectacles of the Silent Era), 1950’s House by the River nevertheless stands as one of his greatest works. Precisely taut and perfectly cast (Stephen Byrne, rarely if ever a leading man, is a squeamish revelation), Lang implements an ominous, nearly haunted atmosphere to the dark proceedings. As is the case in most great black and white films noir, expressionistic use of minimal light and heavy shadow compensate for lack of other production value. Leave it to Lang, a master of visual expressionism for decades by this point, to fully utilize his knowledge and artist’s eye in this macabre setting. Even when House by the River takes us away from the house by the river (say, for the obligatory courtroom sequence), we never fully leave it.
House by the River is a minor masterpiece with a darkly evocative moral center, literally demonstrating, via the cyclical journey of the trash in the nearby river, that what goes around indeed comes around. Hard choices are grappled with by memorable characters for the duration of the film, particularly the conundrum of Stephen’s brother John (Lee Bowman), a principled man who’s familial loyalty begs the question of just how far he’ll go in defending his sibling who he knows for a fact is guilty. Stephen, meanwhile, comes to see this whole thing as perfect source material for his new book- exactly the kind of scandalous sauce he’s been looking for to reinvigorate his floundering career. And what of Marjorie, Stephen’s wife who knows all too well the heinous shortcomings of her husband?
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ recently released Blu-ray edition of House by the River is a beautiful thing. The black levels of a film like this are essential in its atmospheric immersion- something that online streaming cannot master, but high definition physical media absolutely can. This is a case in point. Once you experience the gauntly soulless glare of Louis Hayward via this 2K restoration, you will understand why this disc deserves a place on the shelf in your house. Sweetening the package is a terrifically informative commentary track by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and a video interview with the late respected producer and historian, Pierre Rissient.
The film sticks with you in that way a great film does. One can point to the staging of its ending action as a misstep, and that wouldn’t be wrong. But in the end, quibbles are just that in this expansive yet cloistering house. It’s not a pleasant place, but once you enter Lang’s House by the River, you won’t want to leave.
The images and promotional material used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality or content of the Blu-ray.