Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) is a writer who has had very little success. He lives in a beautiful House by the River with his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) and their maid, Emily Gaunt (Dorothy Patrick). All is quite calm in his life, despite his lack of success. He spends his days outside in the garden, working on his next piece.
But one day, things take a turn for the sinister in the Byrne household. While his wife is out visiting friends, Stephen tries to force himself on Emily. When she resists his advances and begins screaming, he accidentally strangles her while attempting to stop quiet her.
Stephen’s brother John (Lee Bowman) happens to show up in the wrong place at the wrong time, arriving at Stephen’s house just after Emily has died. John is hesitant to get involved, but Stephen convinces his brother to help him get rid of the body by lying and saying that Marjorie is pregnant. John then agrees to help, with Marjorie’s well being and reputation in mind.
But Stephen doesn’t stop at murdering a woman and getting his brother involved in the crime. He decides to use Emily’s disappearance to promote one of his books, and at the same time begins writing an entirely new book based on her murder. But when police find Emily’s body in a wood sack embroidered with John’s name, both of the brothers come under suspicion for her death.
Fritz Lang directs this 1950 film, which has been described as a “gothic mystery.” More accurately, this film would be categorized as part gothic mystery, part noir, part courtroom drama, part thriller. It is based on the novel of the same name by A. P. Herbert.
A fantastic level of suspense is built very early on in the film, as the plot slowly creeps toward the big murder scene. And once the murder actually occurs, the film remains full of tension as the viewer waits for the police to discover the body, and then waits to discover the verdict of the trial. A very striking use of light and shadow adds to the sense of fear and mysterious quality of the film, making it one of the most successfully thrilling pieces of work that I’ve watched in a very long time.
The film is also elevated by Hayward’s performance as the accidentally murderous Stephen Byrne. In some early scenes, directly after the murder and as Stephen tries to convince John to help him, it almost seems that Hayward is overacting. But as the film carries on, it becomes clear that this is an important part of the character of Stephen. Though Emily’s death was an accident, he has no true remorse, and so he must overcompensate when trying to convince his brother to help. He may not have intended to murder anyone, but Stephen is definitely no angel.
The two other pivotal performances here, from Jane Wyatt and Lee Bowman, are also very solid. A whole lot of sympathy is drummed up for John. He may be an accomplice to the crime, but his willingness to help his brother came from a good place. The viewer feels like they shouldn’t like him because he agreed to help dump the body, but it’s hard to wish the worst for him when his care for Marjorie seems so sincere, and this is all thanks to Lee Bowman’s spectacular performance.
Jane Wyatt’s performance is very good, and her character is an interesting one. Since she was not involved in the crime and knows nothing of her husband or brother-in-law’s involvement, her character provides a very odd underlying sense of calm to her scenes that occur before the trial. She is concerned over Emily’s disappearance, but Wyatt doesn’t give off the frantic worry that the viewer gets from Hayward and Bowman. This gives the film a very unusual dynamic.
Overall, House by the River succeeds in being both a solid drama and a very successful thriller. The material is well-written, perfectly directed and very solidly performed. The score: 4/5