WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
For my round 3 Lang film, I wanted to use the opportunity to go with a more controversial, off-the-beaten pick—something to show that in addition to his most famous films, he scattered a lot of bizarre, atmospheric gems during his time in America. But which oddity to choose? Moonfleet, which is loved by French film critics and generally ignored by everyone else? Ministry of Fear, which may be his most fun? You and Me, which is definitely his warmest?
In the end, I went with House by the River, and chose to use the opening paragraph to plug the rest. House by the River is one of Lang’s most overlooked and (until it was resurrected by the Cahiers crowd) one of his hardest to find. It’s a sordid tale of murder, where Lang’s recurring themes—death, sex, madness, guilt, and (most intriguingly) artistic creation —are all allowed to swirl around one another. But more importantly, it shows what the director of mega-budget “superfilms” like Metropolis could do on a shoestring.
In the director intro, I said that Lang never achieved the prominence in Hollywood that he’d had in Germany. This actually was a huge understatement. Lang spent much of his time in Hollywood as something of an outcast, butting heads with producers, working in the margins, and never enjoying the same access to top talent as, say, Hitchcock. The years before House by the River saw Lang’s career at a low point. In the 40s, Lang had partnered with actress Joan Bennett and producer Walter Wanger to start their own production company and make a series of noirs. Their final film was called Secret Beyond the Door, and for the first time in his American career, the director got a mark of authorship (“Fritz Lang’s…”) above title. The film was a disastrous flop—but see it anyway, it’s one of his most fascinating. The partners parted ways, and for his next project, Lang took a job with Republic Pictures, a none-too-prestigious “poverty row” studio known mainly for cranking out westerns, serials, and B-movies. But with limited means, no stars, and relative creative freedom, Lang made one of the most distinct and unnervingly strange films of his career.
No character is ever seen falling asleep or waking up in House by the River, but the whole film feels very persuasively like a nightmare, prone to anti-logic and bursts of irrational terror—like the way a shot of a fish jumping out of the water can give you a sudden jolt. Where exactly does it take place? Ostensibly the American south, but that’s never particularly convincing, and I don’t get the sense that it’s even a primary concern. The film’s atmosphere is more the stuff of dreams, and the cultural signifiers are uncanny rather than realistic. It’s safer, then, to say that the film is set in no place real at all, but on a movie set or in a man’s head (if there’s any difference between the two). Indeed, House by the River is as set-bound as Caligari, and in much the same way. Everything feels exaggerated, artificial, threatening and enclosed. Here, Lang is able to turn the phoniness of the exterior sets to his advantage—you get an unsettling feeling that you could run outside and still be locked in.
As Lang’s biographer Patrick McGilligan writes: “never would Lang’s direction be more lush or smothering.” It’s as if the shadows, billowing curtains, and (of course) the river itself are alive and have a mind of their own. And it’s a foreboding context where the characters’ exclamations take on a feverish emotional tenor.
“If I could undo what’s happened, if I could go back—but I can’t!”
“Are you lonely, John?”
“When you worry, darkness does something to you."
So what is House by the River, aside from the dark and florid stylistic excursion into B horror? The story is a parable of two brothers who both, to one degree or another, share guilt in a crime: Stephen, who commits it, and his brother John, who helps cover it up. Give or take an occasional bit over-acting, Stephen is one of Lang’s more frightening creations: a callow, unhinged, and wretched man who accidentally commits murder—and then, upon realizing there’s no consequences, slowly begins to test the boundaries of this new freedom.
The two brothers stand in contrast to one another. Stephen is a wealthy aristocrat, and John is a bookkeeper with a bad leg. Stephen begs when he’s in trouble and gloats when he’s ahead. John is innocent, quiet, socially marginalized,. Following the murder, Stephen is able to disguise his guilt with sociopathic ease, while John is noticeably shaken and antisocial. And so we watch as public suspicion falls on John rather than Stephen, and it becomes clear that this is a world where a man like Stephen—shameless, cold, and presumed respectable—has an advantage. (The fact that he’s a failed writer who attempts to use his sins as artistic fuel gives the film an oddly self-lacerating edge.) This is, in a sense, Stephen’s world: he’s at the center, and every shadow is an extension of himself.
While the murder has shaken John, it’s given Stephen an inflated sense of empowerment. And so, caught in a pinch, he’ll try to kill John, knocking him cold and throwing his body in the river before turning on his own wife. But his power turns out to be a delusion. John reappears—washed back by the river?—and in a moment, it’s as if the world has turned against him. Like Mabuse (and other Lang figures), he’s brought to his final end not by an external force of justice, but by internal madness.
I chose House by the River to showcase a different type of Lang film: set in the country rather than the city, focusing on dark melodrama rather than a jigsaw-puzzle mysteries, and high on atmosphere above all else. I hope it comes as an unexpected discovery even for fans of Lang’s more famous work. Reportedly, Lang had personal attachment to the film, sometimes recounting the first 10 minutes shot for shot when asked about it. It may not be in the top tier of his work, but in a career of over 30 films, it definitely stands out. This is nightmare camp, proto-Lynch, American Expressionism, and possibly the most abstract film the man ever made.
Nice work, Duncan! I really enjoyed this film and have yet to see a Lang that fails to impress.
Lang’s most underrated Hollywood film. Nice post Cinesthesia.
Great choice of films: a cheapo masterpiece.
So glad you wrote about this — and chose such teriffic stills. Cheaply made but not cheap-looking by any means, this study of murder and guilt suggests Edgar Alan Poe with a coupcon of Dostoevsky. Louis Haward is marvelous in it.
Republic at this time was making quasi “Art” films — like Ford’s “The Quite Man” This is anohter example.
Thank you, David! And few films are as easy/fun to cap stills for as a film by Lang.
House by the River. One of my favourite Lang’s. And that is saying something.
i just finished the film and it’s pretty terrific. just wanna say for those planning to watch it on netflix instant, there’s a pretty serious sound issue off and on in the last 30 mins. pretty annoying and i missed some dialogue but not hard to catch up. i saw some other notes about this there so it’s not browser related.
Very nice, Duncan!
Great write up. I didn’t think I was going to like a film with such a detestible main character at first, but it worked out to be wonderfully engaging.
Just watched it. A very odd film. Has great bursts of visual expression. Love the little details, like the writer being caught in the drawstrings of his victim’s robe, which foreshadows his death by being caught in a swirling curtain after he sees her ghostly image.
Wasn’t “van down by the river” a recurring Chris Farley punch line?