Fritz Lang’s Obscure Gothic-Noir


This 1950 Gothic-noir by Fritz Lang, made on a shoestring for Republic, has been a perennially hard-to-see and nearly lost spasm of Langian mordancy—as producer Pierre Rissient relates in a DVD supp, a pioneering Cinémathéque Française retro couldn’t include it, and so Lang himself tried to describe the film shot by shot (“So precisely!”) to an enthralled private audience, including Claude Chabrol. Precise is the word for it, grimly so—and Chabrol may’ve been more influenced by Lang’s recitation than by any 10 Hitchcock films. Set in a strange Victorian-Southern suburb, the movie recounts the depraved self-absorption of a failing novelist (Louis Hayward) who impulsively strangles his young maid, and then sets about implicating his own brother (Lee Bowman) in the crime. Then, of course, he writes about it. Lang’s visual expression of amorality had rarely been as intense in his American films, and the concrete moments of anxiety are choice: the cut from the maid’s bathwater draining to Hayward grinning sleazily as he hears the trickling in the pipe outside, the feverish search through the marsh waters for the errant body, which, when found, inopportunely floats downriver again, its hair billowing in the waves. A B-list leading man in the ’40s, Hayward had by this time aged into a gruesome untrustworthiness, and Lang exploits his star’s every lizardy wrinkle. Its 85 minutes stuffed with shadowy menace, odd magical-realisms (what is it with the jumping fish?), and effortless tension, House by the River is quintessential Lang, and the British print’s restoration is gorgeous. Released alongside is Lang’s masterful proto-noir Scarlet Street (1945); finally, the glory of a sex-hardened Joan Bennett spitting her grape seeds into a sink of moldering dishes is obtainable without decades of TV-print schmutz.

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