Exiled to poverty-row Republic Pictures in 1949, Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis), the self-proclaimed “master of the unusual,” created House by the River, a shocking and mordant low-budget thriller. Like fellow cinema giants Orson Welles (Macbeth) and John Ford (The Quiet Man), Lang enjoyed a freedom at Republic that allowed him to make a unique and truly personal film. In House by the River, Cahiers du Cinema declared, “Lang’s main erotic obsession is displayed more clearly than in any of his other films.”
Victorian ne’er-do-well Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) assaults and murders his wife’s virginal housekeeper. With the reluctant assistance of loyal brother John (Lee Bowman), Stephen remorselessly consigns the girl’s corpse to the river. But as John’s affection for Stephen’s wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), police suspicion about the girl’s disappearance, and the depths of Stephen’s depravity all escalate, the river itself provokes a horrifying reunion between victim and murderer. By House by the River‘s climax, “melodrama is transformed into a work of art [and] a moral nightmare” (Lang biographer Lotte Eisner).
Boasting an ingenious script by Spiral Staircase scribe Mel Dinelli and evocative photography by Edward Cronjager (I Wake Up Screaming), House by the River is a criminally underrated American Grand Guignol that belies its modest origins.