Fritz Lang may be among the best-served directors for DVD extras which open up his films and enlighten audiences in ways that criticism on the written page rarely contemplates. Almost everything he ever made seems to have been released, including his silent films, and the range of extras, commentaries, special essays and so on seems to be bigger than for anyone else. The DVD of his 1950 film House by the River provides one such most enlightening extra – a forty minute plus recitation by Pierre Rissient as to the how the film was lost and then found.
When Pierre first came to Australia back in the 1970s he enquired then as to any likely interest in obtaining the Australian rights to the film. When I asked him how it was that he was able to offer them he went into one of his man of mystery modes and would only say not to worry they were legitimately in his keeping. Eventually I think he sold a print of the film to the National Library’s Film Lending Collection. The copy should now be held in the National Film and Sound Archive.
The film was made by Lang at Republic Studios. It was the only time that Lang made an American film that was not distributed by one of the majors of the day. Lang claims it was “offered to him” though it is easy to see why he would be attracted to the story of murder and the astonishing effect it has on those involved. The killer is liberated and believes himself to be a superman above the law. His brother is inadvisedly implicated and assumes all the guilt. But it had no stars who might sell a ticket.
Pierre Rissient recounts the tale of how the film fell through the distribution cracks in post-war France, notwithstanding that a legion of cinephiles, including all the famous later film directors, were keen to see it. He took it upon himself to track down the film and investigate the situation regarding the rights. The story of this effort, of many years, is recounted in the recitation that is an added extra for the DVD which is released in the US on the estimable Kino label. I recently bought a copy in Spain released under the exclusive label issued by the FNAC chain. The only drawback to the Spanish release is that the Spanish subtitles, while inserted electronically, are not removable so they have to be viewed as well.
The film was made for a studio that would normally fall into the poverty row classification. But, as Louis Hayward says when confronted by the facts of his disreputable life, “sometimes cheap perfume can be very exciting.” The script, the staging, the photography and the music score by the highly regarded George Antheil bespeak of a determined effort by Republic to do something of value. Antheil started as an experimentalist writing music to accompany Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mecanique (1924) and had a separate concert hall career all the while. He composed music for De Mille, Ben Hecht and Nicholas Ray among others but his film credits are small by comparison with many others who worked for over thirty years in movies. The photography by Edward Cronjager is similarly superior and its use of shadows and darkness deserves comparison, as Pierre mentions, with the work of John Alton. The photography stands up very well especially when compared with the work that was done for Lang on other later films. A number of those films, but especially, Human Desire (1954), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1961) all have a cheap look about them as if their budgets prevented them being made with anything other than the flattest glare. House by the River stands this test of comparison very well.
For anyone interested in Lang’s work House by the River is essential viewing, not perhaps among his handful of very greatest films but surely one which explores the director’s themes with some subtlety. The DVD is even more essential because it sets down the effort that was made by Pierre Rissient, acting alone, to save the film from oblivion. The recounting of the story is fascinating in itself. We have a lot of reasons to be grateful that it’s now all there for us, a couple of mouse clicks and a credit card away.