This film is gothic in setting and mood, the style basically noir, the cinematography, esp. at the start, is great, the direction is very Fritz Lang, it employs techniques such as chiaroscuro:
Italian for 'light-dark') [it's] one of the canonical painting modes of the Renaissance. In art, it is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition ... also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures. Similar effects in cinema and photography also are called chiaroscuro.
Which is all the more remarkable because:
Working out of Republic pictures, Lang refused to let the low budget production hamper his vision of a bleak Cain & Abel like Gothic-noir-melodrama. He did, however, meet some resistance when requesting that the maid be played by a black woman, which was quickly shot down by nervous executives at the famed "B" movie studio.
House by the River is far from being among the best of Lang's work, but the final product is still a triumph considering it's basically a three character piece set virtually in just two locations. It scores high on eerie atmosphere and finds Lang dealing in moral bankruptcy/responsibility and the eye for an eye mentality. Ushered into the narrative, too, is a Lang fave of people irked by loving someone they can't have.
These themes allow the director to gloss over the simple script and dally in some truly arresting visuals.
This was late Lang in America, a different time, a different place and the Hays Code to hamper him. This was post-war, 1950s America. There are many criticisms of the plot and acting:
# The most interesting aspect of House By The River is the fact that it was produced at Republic Pictures, the home of Roy Rogers and several other B movie cowboys and the values those pictures put forth. Hardly the place for a moody and atmospheric thriller that examines a man's moral degeneracy.# Lang and Hayward create a really frightening picture of moral degeneracy that would have resonated well with post World War II audiences who had just defeated a nation gripped in the philosophy that it was a race of super people.
Yes, very much - What Nietzsche might call a superhuman is in fact a subhuman, a beast and Lang recognises and plays on this. Everyday at N.O., we are observing these beasts at work - whether you go the Anunnaki route as to who they are, the Nephilim route, or whether you just see it as the dark side of humans who got lucky in a big bang way - we are grappling with these creatures right now. [Ephesians 6:12].
# "There's a limit to this business of being brothers."# It's people who should be blamed for the filth, not the river.# The river yields its secrets.
Don't place too much store by the river or the storyline:
# Louis Haywood plays a budding writer with pretensions to Art and dubious morals who 'accidentally' murders his lowly servant girl and drags his weaker brother into the mess to help him out. The story is simply played out to the bitter end.# For some reason, the great director chose to degrade this film on some occasions, yet at other times he would revel in details of the film's opening quarter-hour. However, at the time that he made this film, he was despondent over the collapse of his Diana Productions ... With no offers in sight from the majors, Lang chose to visit "Poverty Row" which may have left him with bad memories of a film of which he should have been more pleased.# [T]here's a lot going on here. The print I saw looked strikingly full of sharp black and white contrast. The photography in this makes the film menacing with blackened rooms lit only by candle light casting dark, sharp shadows across the walls, some extreme camera angles up stairs and down halls, shots of faces seen only in mirrors, extreme close-ups, and sweat dripping on the face of a nervous murderer.
That's probably enough, viewer, to be going on with. The courtroom scene is maybe the weakest point, see what you think - overall, it's quite striking on such a low budget.
On a personal note - if I feel zero identification with either the sociopath, the weak brother or the naive wife, I do feel an affinity for Lang and unfortunately also for Brian Cox in Saturday evening's film coming up.