Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Red House (Thalia/United Artists, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the 1947 film The Red House (at least that’s the date The Film Noir Encyclopedia, which lists it but only in the appendix called “Additional Filmography of the Classic Period,” cites), a confusing would-be thriller that drones on for 107 minutes (about 20 minutes too long for its own good) and is so obscure that for much of its length we really don’t have much of a clue what’s supposed to be going on. It’s set in an isolated farm community in which high-school student Nath Storm (Lon McCallister in the only role he remembered with any sense of pride) hires out on a farm owned by Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson, top-billed). The only other people who live there are Morgan’s sister Ellen (Judith Anderson, tying this movie in with Rebecca in more ways than one) and his daughter — adopted, we learn about half an hour in — Meg (Allene Roberts, a rather homely and surprisingly boyish-looking actress who confuses things by coming on in a different hairdo every time she reappears). Though Nath already has a girlfriend — Tibby (Julie London), who quite frankly looks considerably sexier than Meg — he and Meg end up drawn together not only by physical proximity and mutual attraction (mutual frustration is more like it) but by their shared curiosity about what’s going on in the old woods adjoining the Morgan farm and in particular the mysterious red house that’s supposed to survive in the middle of the woods.

Pete Morgan keeps telling both Nath and Meg never to dare go into those woods, but of course they do so and after a lot of slow-paced futzing around by writer-director Delmer Daves (who drew his story from a novel by the otherwise forgotten George Agnew Chamberlain) we learn the truth, sort of: years before Pete Morgan romanced Meg’s mother, even though she was already married, and ultimately he murdered his lover’s husband in the red house and then decided it was haunted and never went back there or allowed anyone else in his household to do so. What happened to Meg’s mother after that isn’t clearly explained — though in previous scenes we’ve heard odd screaming from the vicinity of the red house suggesting that she’s dead but has come back as a ghost and is haunting the place (I can take a supernatural element in a movie that’s honestly and frankly explained as such better than I can take the possibility of one that’s thrown in but never ultimately explained either naturally or supernaturally) — nor is it ever made quite clear (perhaps because this was a Code-era film and therefore Daves couldn’t do much more than hint at this) that Pete might be Meg’s biological father after all; certainly we do get the hint of an incestuous attraction for Meg on Pete’s part (he even calls her by her mother’s name) but that, too, is kept maddeningly vague either because the Production Code required it or Daves simply wasn’t a good enough writer to make it clear even within Code restrictions.

The rotten quality of the print we were watching didn’t help this film anyway — The Red House was part of the 50-film “Dark Crimes” box from Mill Creek Entertainment and the print available to them was badly washed out, with images Daves and his cinematographer, Bert Glennon (who learned expressionism at the feet of the master, Josef von Sternberg), no doubt intended as atmospheric turning either blindingly bright or murkily washed out. The sound was even worse, often so distorted it was hard to make out the dialogue (it’s an indication of what a crapshoot film preservation is that despite a few dropouts in the sound, the version of The Last Mile in that box, a film made 15 years earlier, is in much better shape), which managed to weaken but not utterly ruin the appeal of the one element of The Red House that unquestionably does work: the awesome musical score by Miklós Rósza. I have the original soundtrack album — a pair of 78’s on Capitol’s Criterion label, in an Expressionist red-and-black cover far more creative visually than the rather bland credits on the actual movie — and it contains four three-minute excerpts from the score, labeled “Prelude,” “Screams in the Night,” “The Forest” and “Retribution” — and Rósza’s score, though not one of his better-known ones, is one of his best, tastefully using added voices and a discreet theremin part (he’d already become identified with the theremin from his scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound, and Spellbound had been popular enough on records that Capitol blurbed it on the cover of The Red House) to create an atmosphere largely lacking in Daves’ direction, Glennon’s cinematography and a cast that either overacts (Robinson, London and Rory Calhoun as Teller, a forest-dwelling weirdo whom Pete tells to scare people away from the “haunted” woods — which he does by shooting at them; he nearly kills Meg and she breaks her leg running away from him over locations already too familiar from a thousand “B” Westerns) or barely acts at all (McCallister, Little and even Anderson, who banks the fires that blazed so beautifully in Rebecca, probably so she won’t take attention away from Robinson’s heaving and posturing as her brother).

Perhaps The Red House wouldn’t seem so dreary in a better print, but as it stands here it seems like a movie way too confusing to be entertaining and a noble attempt but one that fell far short of the potential of its story. The Red House came about in a curious way; producer Sol Lesser approached Edward G. Robinson to see if he’d be interested in the role, but then Robinson found out that he wasn’t merely being offered a part — he was being asked to sign on as co-producer because with his involvement in the project Lesser could get financing and a release agreement from United Artists — and in his autobiography Robinson said producing was “a role for which I am completely unsuited” and he never again did anything on a film but act.