So, the Film Forum has been doing a wonderful retrospective of his work in the twenty years (1936-56) that he was in the good ol' US-of-A, doing his part to turn the dramatic mirror back on to us. And these were two somewhat more obscure works, "B-movies" if you will, with its biggest stars in the second film.
Sometimes in Film-Noir you had the villain as the 'lead'. The Third Man notwithstanding, they were out there, and some more sympathetic than others (one that jumps to mind right away is a character who becomes a villain over the course of the story, Fritz Lang's own Scarlet Street). What's notable about his low-budget film House by the River is how nasty the main character is, and how much he loves being it. Even before plot point numero-uno where writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) "accidentally" strangles his maid after trying to force a big fat kiss on to her and gets his limping, weak-but-not-stupid brother to help him dump the body in the river, he looks creepy. He gazes out his window like a bourgeois monster. If you'd told me Luis Bunuel had directed these opening scenes I'd believe you. He's so much a jerk at the start, and whatever sympathy we might feel at first for being an "accident" (must use quotes) goes away pretty fast. He makes Jack Torrance look peachy-keen by comparison.
There is a story that does unfold in some melodramatic fashion - mostly involving the guilt Stephen's brother John (Lee Bowman, perhaps by default more subtle with some of his acting save for a courtroom scene where he always clenches his fists) - but it's more about mood I think for Lang here. He didn't have much money to play with, and it shows in some moments, not to mention limited sets and a cast that has no one, frankly, I could recognize. If anything I had to think that he cast Hayward as Orson Welles was unavailable (he seriously resembles him if not totally in appearance than in facial mannerisms and speech, that or the grown-up version of Vincent Kartheiser on Mad Men). Hayward is Lang's wild-card here; if a scene isn't quite picking up steam or the dialog is a little average, Hayward will puck up and just eat the scene around the actors.
|You ever heard of the healing power of writing about your own crimes?|
What does save it from being just a pot-boiler in Victorian-era garb, or it being a bizarre tale of the breaking of writer's block (or lifts it up as that), is Lang as director. He just has a way about framing faces and places, getting the most buck from the darkness that surrounds these people. It goes a way to explain how at times characters, like Stephen's wife Marjorie, comments upon the darkness all around. This is in the era before most lights were electrical, which allows for a lot of scenes of characters hiding in the shadows of rooms without the aid of a lamp, peering around the side as a person comes knocking at a door or goes walking down a hallway.
If Lang does anything to try to get the audience to understand (as opposed to identify) with Stephen, and successfully, it's that, the paranoia, the growing delirium of this dead body creating horror all around. It's not supposed to be a horror movie, but it's hard not to shake it, especially when Stephen has to go by boat at night to try and find that burlap sack. By the way Lang frames and edits Stephen in his little boat, it's a wonder the river doesn't eat him up and burp up a soiled dickey. This is a case where a script isn't ever "bad", but the direction certainly elevates it from what it could have been, which was forgettable. It's hard to forget some of these images, almost despite the predictable melodrama.
The Blue Gardenia - I'd heard of this movie years back, obviously, from looking at Lang's filmography. I was always curious to see it just by the title, as it sounded akin to The Blue Dahlia, another 'Blue' film-noir type of movie that involves murder and deceit, only this not being via Raymond Chandler. Finally coming around to it, it surprises as one of Lang's most involving American film-noirs. It might suffer a little at the end by a 'twist' that has to make one think back to a tertiary character from earlier in the story and how that factors in, and makes some sense but not a lot to be totally credible, but it's its only real flaw. The rest of it is simmering with tension and dread as this story could be something audiences nowadays could identify with. It's like The Hangover shot by John Alton (yeah, take THAT cross-referencing film buffs!)
The story concerns a woman, not too young but not too old, played by the very talented and naturally sexy Anne Baxter, who is looking forward to hear back from her lover who is overseas in the army, and discovers by letter that... she's dumped. So, she goes to drown her sorrows away (her fellow girl-roommate friends aren't around that night), and she goes with the first guy who propositions her, heavy Raymond Burr (yup, Perry Mason himself), and he takes her to a Chinese restaurant full of exotic beverages, Nat King Cole (actually present and pleasantly singing the movie's theme song in person!), and Chinese food. He makes himself out to be a cool dude with lots of paintings of women, but really he's a lothario, and his scheme to take her back to his place to liquor her up more and have-his-way backfires as she resists and knocks him with a poker!
She wakes up the next morning back at her place and doesn't remember a thing... but then little flashes happen, a mirror breaking, coffee, little signs, and the Blue Gardenia, leading up to the news headlines about the murder! It then turns into a story of when-and-how as a newspaper man played by stone-faced Richard Conte tries to get the Blue Gardenia Girl to come forward. But throughout Lang pumps up the dread and paranoia in the situation, and how it is not something so far out but could happen to women out there. And because of how douche-like Harry Prebble was, she's not so unsympathetic. This makes things a little different than the usual 'crime-doesn't-pay' aesthetic in these crime stories. She's just a dame with bad luck, and Baxter plays up this part of Norak Larkin very well. She is as she sounds to one of the waitresses: a nice, soft voice. And 5 1/2 shoes.
There is comedy here, too, that shouldn't be forgotten. Some of it may be funny just by the passage of time, the way stuff in The Big Heat is amusing as well just by the changing of some attitudes. Other times it is funny quips and exchanges, mostly by Norah's chatty roommates who have their own male issues they deal with (nothing as serious as her of course). And Lang has some fun here and there; my favorite was a riff on Mickey Spallane crime novels, and we see a cover for one called "My Knife is Bloody" (how that is not a horror movie yet I haven't the slightest). But mostly, The Blue Gardenia is wonderful at expressing how tough it is for a woman to get by in such a situation, not just as a murderer/murderess. The roles reversed it'd be a different ball-game, but her story makes it into a punchy-headline grabber that even throws its own newspaper writer off-guard.
|Sorry I can't make this larger, google-images can't stand it's magnifi-fuckyes-ness|
Again, The Hangover done super hard-boiled 1950's style, and with less Zach Galifianakis.