© 2013 William Ahearn
The idea to turn A. P. Herbert’s 1921 novel, The House By The River, into a film had been kicking around Hollywood for years. In 1948, Otto Preminger planned a production of the film and wanted Cary Grant and Rex Harrison to star. Instead, the film ended up being produced at Republic Studios leading some critics and biographers to refer to the film as a B-movie almost by definition, although Orson Welles directed “Macbeth” at Republic and John Ford, Frank Borzage and later Nicholas Ray would also direct at the studio.
(Patrick McGilligan in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast writes that “House by the River” is based on Herbert’s Floodtide. Apparently, McGilligan picked this up from Frederick Ott who also got it wrong.)
The basic gist of this gothic tale is that a failing writer, Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) kills his wife’s maid, Emily Gaunt (Dorothy Patrick), seemingly unintentionally – it’s far more explicit in the book – and enlists his brother, John Byrne (Lee Bowman) to help him dispose of the body and in doing so implicates John in the murder when the body washes ashore in the sack with the brother’s name on it. John and Stephen’s wife, Marjorie Byrne (Jane Wyatt) – are getting closer – and Stephen sets out to kill them before they turn him in.
Years later, Fritz Lang would say that he wanted a “colored girl” to be the murder victim, although – according to Patrick McGilligan – Lang signed on after the script was finished and the casting complete. “The only other time [besides ‘Fury’] that I struck the Negro problem,” Lang related in The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, “was in a picture I don’t particularly like: ‘House by the River,’ with Louis Hayward.” It’s also interesting that while Lang complained about the “fakeness” of the riverside in “Moontide,” the low-budget and entirely unconvincing riverfront of this film didn’t seem to bother him even though he had very little to say about this film.
In a retrospective of Lang’s work in Paris at the Cinémathèque, Pierre Rissient and Claude Chabrol asked Lang about “House by the River” that – according to Rissient, “no one had seen in France.” Lang – Rissient said – “could describe shot by shot the first ten, twelve minutes of the film. It was almost as if we were seeing the film. When people speak of the coldness of Fritz Lang, it’s true, but in this case there was also enormous emotion.” (There is a version of this interview on the Kino DVD.) That “enormous emotion” for this film never appears in any other interview with Lang that I could find.
When Lang wishes to distance himself from a film that he didn’t particularly care for, he either blames it on the Red scare (“The Blue Gardenia”) or the fact that he needed the money (“An American Guerilla in the Philippines”) and in the case of “House by the River” he blames it on both.
“At the time,” Lang told Positif in 1968, “there were witch hunts. I was never a member of the [Communist] Party, but my sentiments were for the Left. And, of course, everyone said I was a Communist. I don’t know why, but I didn’t have a contract at that time. My agent was simply told there wasn’t any work for me. My lawyer was told that I wasn’t being accused of being a Communist, but I that might become one. So I made [‘House by the River’] because I hadn’t any work for a year and a half. What interested me, since one always tries in a film to give the most of one’s self, was that nocturnal atmosphere, of water, of a drowned woman [sic]. I don’t know if you are aware, but even a director needs money to live.”
That hiatus could also be explained by Lang’s reputation for alienating producers and studios and also by the disaster of “Secret Beyond the Door” and the dissolution of Diana Productions in which Lang was solely responsible. Lang had also developed a reputation as a difficult director and this film – as would many – serves as an example. Lang browbeat and intimidated the male leads – Louis Hayward and Lee Bowman – or so the story goes and reserved his real contempt for Jane Wyatt who Lang abused and at one point called her an “amateur.” Wyatt walked off the set and production halted until Lang profusely apologized.
The ending of A. P. Herbert’s novel would never get past the Hays Office and that accounts for the contorted and contrived dénouement that allows for the potential of a happy ending and the novelist “paying” for his crime. Even so, there is a murder, and that, of course, sets the stage for all sorts of speculation about Lang. The Senses of Cinema web review of “House by the River” suggests that Lang murdered his first wife, Lisa Rosenthal, giving Lang – one supposes – special insight into the mind of a killer:
“In fact,” the Senses of Cinema review states, “Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was more than a student of murder – he was interrogated by German police in 1920 under suspicion of having actually murdered his first wife. The death was eventually – and not too convincingly – labeled suicide, but murder, suspicion and legal persecution haunt the director’s subsequent work, and are duly present in ‘House by the River.’”
Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan also suggests that Lisa Rosenthal’s ghost lurks within Lang’s films – see “Beyond A Reasonable Doubt” – and while McGilligan allows that Rosenthal’s death was “mysterious,” David Cairns writing in Senses of Cinema states that the “death was eventually – and not too convincingly – labeled suicide” leading directly to the belief that Lang murdered his first wife.
Since the particulars of Lisa Rosenthal’s death – and Lang was never subjected to “legal persecution” – are completely different from the murders in “House by the River” or “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” and that Lang had nothing to do with either script, it seems that the information about Lisa Rosenthal is going to permeate the interpretation of Lang’s films in yet another erroneous way. So little factual evidence exists that McGilligan writes that the event may have happened in 1920 or even 1921.
That murder and suicide appear in Lang’s films before the mysterious death of Lisa Rosenthal doesn’t seem to make a difference and the knowledge that Lang – according to David Cairns – is in fact a murderer now opens a new perspective on his work that will further distort his films and add an assumed slant that is questionable, at best.
When Nunnally Johnson worked with Lang on “The Woman in the Window,” he said, “What Lang did was simply emphasize the elements of the script he sympathized with and ignore those he did not.” In “House by the River,” Lang seems to use a similar process only in this case it’s the visuals that he sometimes emphasized. Some of his classic Hollywood work interrupts what can best be described as pedestrian cinematography that was shot by Edward Cronjager, who had worked previously with Lang on “Western Union.” Since Republic’s distribution deal – I assume – didn’t include overseas markets, there is far less European criticism of this film than is typical with Lang’s films. The popularity of Lang’s films – as with any director with a deep catalog – wax and wane and “House by the River” seems recently to be on the rise.
Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang writes that “House by the River” “remains one of Lang’s most interesting but least considered mystery melodramas.” One of the reasons that the film is “least considered” is that it rarely came up in interviews with French critics – who presumably hadn’t seen it – and even Peter Bogdanovich couldn’t get much out of Lang about this film. Lang recalls the beginning of the film and spends the rest of the time talking about problems with the Hays Office over a single line of dialog and then addresses censorship in general. Lang also mentions that he “fought like a Trojan” to cast a “colored” girl to play the maid.
The real issue with this film is that it doesn’t fit neatly into the perceived image of Lang’s work and a review that considers it a “film noir” cites the “nearly expressionistic” shots in an attempt to link this film with his German films that, of course, were never expressionistic, nearly or otherwise. Variety stated that ‘“House by the River’ is a fair mystery which lacks sufficient plot twists and suspense.” The novel isn’t a mystery and applying the necessary crime-and-punishment aspect contorts it into one and the real thrust of the novel has far more to do with class issues than the concerns of the Hays Office.
Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang and Tom Gunning in The Films of Fritz Lang relate the plot of the film and while Eisner presents a cut-and-dried rendering with sections of the script, Gunning relates a running interpretation that includes observations of the water draining out of a tub: “This is truly an obscene moment, again worthy of [Luis] Buñuel. The eroticism of the previous scene drains into this passionate plumbing. The noises are bathroom noises; not just the tub drain is evoked, but the sound of a flush toilet, even sounds of digestion and excretion.”
Apparently Gunning got the extended foley cut DVD of “House by the River” or has an overactive aural sense. The scene is pivotal stylistically because it brings the film into the interior of the house and the reality that Lang creates inside contrasts remarkably with the unconvincing studio set of the riverfront. The inside is dark and shadowy and candlelit even in the middle of the afternoon. What is erotic isn’t the sound of a tub draining but how Lang presents the maid even before she descends the stairs. And that is the schizoid nature of the film going from dark to pedestrian based seemingly on whim since other interior scenes aren’t moody at all and play out as conventional melodrama.
What results is a schizoid Gothic tale that is at times fascinating and at times frustrating. During this time, Lang was working on a project about Ernst Udet – the German pilot who suicided in his plane rather than fly for the Nazis – titled “The Devil's General.” Selznick was interested and then he wasn't.