House by the River


Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Louis Hayward, Lee Bowman, Jane Wyatt, Dorothy Patrick.

When a gothic late 19th-century murder melodrama is titled House by the River, it can really get off on the wrong foot if the river itself doesn’t look very sinister when it predictably provides the backdrop to the opening credits. The turbulent Big Drink seen here definitely fills the bill, and its table-setting creepiness gives strong suggestion that extra care was given to what would be pegged by many observers as a ‘B’-picture or, at best, a shaky-‘A.’

River was, in fact distributed in 1950 by what was then an increasingly shaky Republic Pictures — albeit during that decade when Roy Rogers’ professional homestead additionally found room for such prestige filmmakers as Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Frank Borzage, Orson Welles, John Ford, Nicholas Ray and —  if you let them on the list by virtues of their best pictures — William Dieterle (who’d soon resume his career in Germany) and an end-of-the-line Frank Lloyd. The luridly twisted River, which Republic picked up from indie Fidelity Pictures, added Fritz Lang to the list, and truth to tell, I’d have to rate it with my favorites of his Hollywood films. This said, it does loom somewhere between being underrated and even unseen by some Lang aficionados, at least those of a certain age whose cinema appreciation flourished at a time when it was difficult to see. For comparably older viewers, this wasn’t a problem because the Republic package played on TV incessantly from the late-’50s into the mid-’60s, and I myself saw the film for the first time at NYU in 1970 or ’71, courtesy of Prof. William K. Everson’s personal print.

Back to the moody river, though I hate to bring Pat Boone into the picture, on which practically sits the upscale house of a failed writer (Louis Hayward, a long way from Monte Cristo). Given his sales quotient, he  probably wouldn’t be able to afford his residence were it not for a brother (Lee Bowman) who gave up some of his share of their father’s inheritance money to make it happen. This latter straight-arrow, who limps from some unspecified affliction, is in love with his brother’s wife (Jane Wyatt), which may have been the motivation. But to quote Dizzy Dean in his baseball announcing days when a portly relief pitcher (Fred Gladding, I think) walked to the round from the bullpen, both siblings seem to be “eatin’ regular.” And, even more germane to the film, are able to employ servants in a movie that’s very much about class distinction.

We get this point right away when Hayward’s female servant (Dorothy Patrick, who, at the time, was top-billed in several Republic ‘B’s opposite Robert Rockwell) asks to use the upstairs bathroom because the plumber hasn’t arrived to fix her own quarters. Hayward is a dissipated leering type, and besides, Wyatt is away so the master agrees all too willingly; this is a guy we soon see getting turned on by hearing the young woman’s bath water floating down inside the drain on the house’s exterior drain (oh, Fritz, you devil). Hayward makes an unwanted crude advance when her bathing is completed, silences her screams when a nosy neighbor is momentarily struck by the commotion and then discovers he has strangled assault victim. In a reluctant decision that comes to fill Bowman with escalating regret on a near-daily basis, he agrees to help his brother dispose of the body in, naturally, the river.

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Thanks to either a Lang brainstorm or more likely a good set-up in a script by Mel Dinelli that sometimes recalls that consistently deft screenwriter’s contribution to Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase, we’ve seen from the get-go that a dead horse (or some kind of livestock; my eyes couldn’t specify) has a pesky way of rising to the top of its own watery grave. And then floating. What this portends doesn’t make either of the assailants’ days — and probably not local real estate agents, either — but the far more sympathetic Bowman truly bears a brunt that escalates. He’s deeply offended when everyone around, partly in response to Hayward-planted fake evidence, assumes the murdered maid was a tramp who stole jewelry and before blowing town. And he’s all-out horrified to see his brother suddenly professing be a better writer now that he’s experienced the dark side, or whatever they called it in those days. The whole situation is further taking an emotional toll on Wyatt, and this Bowman hates most of all.

At this point, we’re veering on spoiler territory, so let’s change the subject to some scattershot observations. One is that after a brief mid-’40s run where Lang briefly became something of a a box office director with Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street bang-bang-bang, he stumbled badly when the apparently very expensive Secret Beyond the Door lost a lot of money. It’s been too long since I’ve read Patrick McGilligan’s extraordinary standout Lang biography, but I suspect the previous bust had something to do with the fact that River was the director’s first film in three years amid a long period when he’d been working pretty regularly. Working with a cast that some River critics knock as being less than top-of-the-line, he either coaxed or (given his rep) more likely badgered his three leads into surprisingly impassioned performances. (Worth noting: Before TV’s “Father Knows Best” established her permanent image once an for all, Wyatt shifted gears the same year as River when she played a scheming murderess — and quite convincingly — in The Man Who Cheated Himself.)

Another thought is that I like the way Lang and art director Boris Leven (though early in his career, Leven eventually found his place among the biggest of the Big Time) make the house an actual character in the movie. This is especially impressive because we basically only see the hallway/stairs where the murder takes place and an upstairs bedroom or two. But one’s imagination intriguingly takes over when it comes to speculating about the the rest of the layout and the human dynamics that must have been playing out with the household principals.

Another point, just because I’d like to shoehorn this in, is the degree to which Jody Gilbert nails her role as Bowman’s cook and overall servant — a woman who’s both a royal pain and sympathetic and probably in love with an employer who grows increasingly testy with her. Gilbert, who was fatally injured  three decades later in a road accident, was an overweight comic actress, and the words “Fat,” “Plumb” and “Stout” were sometimes parts of the official character names she was assigned, which, more often that not, were in comic roles, which I suppose is one way male-female dynamics have improved in the modern era. Given a chance to play it straighter, Gilbert’s is an example of our watching a someone about to deliver what one assumes will be a competently functional interpretation and then watching the performer go all the way with it.

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Australian academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas gives Gilbert a shout-out as well, but my biggest take-away from listening to her supplementary disc commentary is gleaning the tension between what she’s  saying (frequently mighty starchy) and her sometimes chummy, ingratiating delivery (though, far as I’m concerned, she could have gone even heavier on the “chummy”). She’s a fan of the film while conceding that others (even some Lang fanciers) are not, but most of all, she’s rightly consumed by a point she talks about a lot at the beginning and returns to later.

It hasn’t anything to do with what the filmmakers did but Patrick’s murder has been described by some as a seduction gone wrong — a tone-deaf misreading by what I assume have to be male critics. If you note the look on her face in her final moments and Hayward’s own frenzied mania, it isn’t much of a stretch to concede that at least by by comparison, Baby, It’s Cold Outside really is closer to a seductive cat than not. Hayward is such a head-shaker of a transparent creep here that Heller-Nicholas can’t avoid re-emphasizing the point from time to time throughout, depending on whatever transgression against civility he’s perpetrating at the moment. And for much of the time, in apt melodramatic fashion, he has the town — and what pathetically passes for its literati — snookered.

Mike’s Picks: “House by the River” and “Five Graves to Cairo”

The Man Who Cheated Himself


Street Date 9/25/18;
Flicker Alley;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall, Lisa Howard.

Folks familiar with The Man Who Cheated Himself often bring up its offbeat casting, though speaking as one who just recently fell into a YouTube clip of Lee J. Cobb as one of five singing-dancing personalities on an episode of “The Dean Martin Show,” I’m not irrevocably floored at seeing the then future Johnny Friendly taking on a romantic dimension in this indie noir produced by Jack L. Warner’s estranged son (Jack B.).

In other words, Cobb does get to wear a suit, puff on cigarettes at work (Cheated’s cool San Francisco locales aren’t the only thing that make it a period piece) and kiss a dame for whom he has an itch.

As for the dame … well, that casting is indeed something else. On the bonus look-back featurette included on Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray of the nifty UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration, Eddie (“Czar of Noir”) Muller quotes Folsom Prison Blues to elucidate the character of this rich society type, who has caught Cobb’s eye, to say nothing of his libido. Which is to say that she shoots a man just to watch him die — even though it must be said that events transpire so quickly that it’s no slam-dunk to pinpoint her exact motive. Still, it’s messy, because she did indeed hate the victim in the first place. And he was her husband (messier still). And, cop boyfriend Cobb was in the room, even if it wouldn’t necessarily have been his preference (a full plate of lasagna tossed at the wall).

But getting back to the casting, this unholy wife — a description I’ll just lift from the title of 1957’s Rod Steiger-Diana Dors Technicolor potboiler — is played in atypically over-the-top fashion by, of all people, Jane Wyatt. And, yes: that Jane Wyatt — once of Lost Horizon but most memorably identified with the role she’d soon own: “perfect” mom Margaret Anderson on TV’s “Father Knows Best.” You can just hear her saying to the Anderson kids: “Well, before your father and I were married, I shot my first husband to death — though, actually, he was my second husband — and then a detective friend who was kind of sweet on me took charge of disposing the corpse.” This, at least, would answer the question of why not just Bud but all three Anderson offspring were so messed up (which I, for one, always thought was a great show’s secret weapon).

So, this is the Cheated premise, though there’s still one more wrinkle. New to the police force is an about-to-be-married rookie (John Dall, in more against-type casting) who is not just Cobb’s younger brother but one assigned to work alongside him. And the kid has so much aptitude when it comes to dissecting inconsistencies in a case that’s ironically under Cobb’s very jurisdiction that the older sibling doesn’t know quite what to do (he has enough problems as it is). In terms of a broad, barebones reading, the premise is not too dissimilar to the one in 1952’s Scandal Sheet (directed by Phil Karlson from Sam Fuller’s source novel) in which the editor of a New York rag kills his long-estranged wife and now must deal with a talented young reporter/protege of his who’s about two steps behind in cracking the case.

Actor Dall, of course, played a good guy at heart in Joseph H. Lewis’s classic Gun Crazy (bank knockoffs or not) — but there was something about him that seemed a little “off” in his craving for bad-girl wife Peggy Cummins. Turns out, per the Cheated bonus doc, that Lewis cast Dall because he was gay in real life, and Muller notes that the actor’s projected screen image was more in sync with his role in Hitchcock’s Rope — and, I might add, for his small role in Spartacus, where Dall’s unctuous Marcus Glabrus character sits with Laurence Olivier’s Crassus in the George Steinbrenner box seats as Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode prepare to fight to the death. In Cheated, Dall is decent enough at projecting rookie enthusiasm, and that’s a necessity in the role). Quite striking, though, is actress and future ABC news personality Lisa Howard, who plays his new bride. Though potentially stuck in a throwaway part, Howard is quietly but potently attractive as a kind of well-kempt bohemian that I’ll just bet was true to the period. Howard, who in real life apparently slept with Castro in pursuit of what became a big scoop at the time, was eventually fired by her network over other politically-related activities. Later, she took hundred or so pills in a parking lot, which immediately killed her at age 39. On a July 4th.

At the time of this film, Howard was married to its director (Felix E. Feist). The latter never had big bucks to work with, but even beyond teaming Nancy Reagan with a severed head in 1953’s Donovan’s Brain, he made some movies I like: this one; Deluge; The Threat, Tomorrow Is Another Day; and especially The Devil Thumbs a Ride. (The last is one of those movies, along with Dillinger, Born to Kill and Reservoir Dogs, to offer a guarantee that Lawrence Tierney, even if he were still alive, wouldn’t be starring in any fictional adaptation of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). According to film historian Julie Kirgo — who’s interviewed here along with czar Muller, Feist’s son Raymond and recent Michael Curtiz biographer Alan Rode (who, along with Muller, is one of this disc’s four credited producers) — Feist only had something like five days of on-the-pavement location shooting in San Francisco. This is beyond amazing.

I’m always struck by the irony of how low-budget postwar filmmakers often had to shoot on the streets of out economic necessity — which is now one of the components that make those films look so vital today (D.O.A. is another that comes to mind). Meanwhile, the same era’s studio-bound noir from the majors looks like exactly that, as taxis make their ways down backlot streets that weren’t really that mean. In any event, Feist got everything there was to get out of his shoe leather and tire tread, and this picture is a veritable travelogue of vintage locations. And then, these visuals get punctuated by a terrific then-and-now bonus section look at this same shorelines and structures, including the buildings and especially corridors of formidably photogenic Fort Point near the Golden Gate Bridge. Vertigo fans will have a grand old time here.

Cheated is the latest baby from the Film Noir Foundation, which was also a major player in the rescue of Woman on the Run and Too Late for Tears before they became Flicker Alley Blu-ray releases as well. It, too, was a distribution “orphan” that fell through the preservation cracks; the younger Warner put it together for distribution by 20th Century-Fox, which apparently gave it somewhere between one and a smattering of year-end, 1950 bookings before putting it into general distribution in ’51. As a point of reference, it didn’t get to my hometown until the first week of May, where it got booked into the smallest downtown movie house — the one where the classier Republic Westerns played — in subordinate billing to Britain’s 7 Days to Noon, which had just taken an Oscar for best story.

That’s a pretty fair double bill — and certainly more enticing than what I saw listed for most of the summer on my neighborhood marquee. The print here is better than I ever anticipated, with big chunks of it nearly immaculate. I don’t know where the restorers are even finding these acceptable copies, which are then simonized to the hilt, but this is a laughably keen improvement over the Cheated atrocities that run on YouTube. And though I’ve never seen it on the old Alpha DVD, even the jacket on that one makes my eyes bleed.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Jackal’ and ‘The Man Who Cheated Himself’