Laid low by some sort of virus, Fritz Lang’s House on the River (1950) is just the sort of relatively light-weight confection I needed to keep boredom away. A low-budget gem to be sure, this gothic-noir features a rich author, Steven Byrne, who is having a bit of writer’s block. We learn that he has a not-too-healthy relationship with his co-dependent brother, who complains about the thousands of scrapes he’s helped his literary brother escape. He even lives modestly as a bookkeeper so his brother can have the luxury due to an artiste, all on their joint inheritance.
Steven has a pretty wife and a wandering eye. He is delightfully twisted, and always speaks with an upper crust calm and suavity, even when he is responding to his wife’s charges that he stays out at night, comes home drunk and smelling of cheap perfume. “The smell of cheap perfume can be quite exciting, my dear…” he replies. Honest to a fault, that Steven.
The plot is set in motion by his desire for the fresh-faced young girl who is the housemaid. She tells him that the servant’s quarters bath is not yet fixed, and he graciously allows her to use the upstairs one, his wife’s, who is away with friends. The sound of the bath water sluicing down the pipe is too much for the imaginative Steven – he must have her. (Pipes in those days were often mounted outside of the walls, as shown here. The film takes place in the early 20th century.)
His romantic advances are spurned, they struggle, he kills her, quite by accident of course. He enlists his mush-brained brother to help him cover it up by dumping the body in the river. His brother will do anything to avoid disgrace or discomfort for Steven’s wife, whom he secretly loves.
All seems to go well as they dump the body, but then a leaping fish breaks the calm of the night, terrifying Steven. The image of the leaping fish will come back to haunt him, called up by the sparkles of light on the vanity mirror in his house.
When Steven’s brother confronts him, the author admits that he feels he gained something from the murder; his writing is so much better now. His brother tells him he must be very ill to think that way. Steven (top image) replies, “Ill…?” Well, it’s a thin line.
His relationship with his pretty wife seems rather cool, but here, they are in quite a passionate clutch. Of course, he’s just about to start strangling her.