In Fritz Lang’s House by the River, the darkness in author Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) was festering long before he accidentally murdered his maid, Emily (Dorothy Patrick). Growing up sheltered and spoiled, his ordinariness and his older brother John (Lee Bowman) guarded him from the consequences of his bad behavior. Above all else, however, Byrne’s wealth and privilege served as a cushion for his lack of scruples, leading him to believe he could get away with anything. Unlike other film noirs about an unexceptional man caught in an unwilling murder, Byrne does not elicit typical sympathy. Crass, fool-worthy and entitled, he gleefully gets away with murder the way he’s always gotten away with everything else in life. It doesn’t matter that no one respects him professionally or personally, as money has a way of isolating bad behaviors from the greater world.
Stephen mocks disabled people, gropes women and nearly gets away with literal murder. The crime, while accidental, transpires when Stephen tries to grope Emily and she refuses his advances. In the aftermath of her disappearance, he accuses Emily of being a woman of ill-repute, one who goes out with a different boy every night. It’s clear that Stephen would never approach his wife or any upper-class woman in the way he attacks Emily, because servants are less than human in his mind. In what would have been an even more pointed statement about class, Lang originally wanted the role of Emily to be cast with a black woman but the producers refused his request, perhaps feeling it would be too radical a statement about inequality for 1950. Emily pays for Stephen’s desire with her life and she’s reduced to collateral damage, which Stephen manages to turn into an opportunity to promote his writing. He feels no remorse and even entertains the idea that his crimes somehow have made him a better writer, as he has finally bloomed into the man he always wanted to be.
Lang frames the narrative of the perfect murder around wealth and privilege, rather than outright cleverness. Stephen’s social standing becomes the only thing that protects him from accusations. While he seems to believe it’s his intelligence and resourcefulness that saves him, the police and courts are more willing to believe that a well-loved servant could secretly be a thief than a wealthy, boorish drunk could be a liar (or be capable of criminal behavior). Lang doesn’t play up any of Stephen’s psychological problems either, making it clear that circumstance rather than illness has corrupted his soul.
House by the River suggests how people like Stephen Byrne poison society. Recklessly projecting his own dark desires on his brother, the courts and his wife, he believes that deep down they are all as rotten as he is. Arrogantly, he believes that his wealth is a virtue that somehow elevates him above the law of man and God. While Lang never fully embraced socialist principles over the course of his career, he always seemed to have a violent distaste for the men who stood on the shoulders of those who were less fortunate, knowing full well that social class does not correlate a strong moral conscious.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.