The Red House has floated around in fuzzy public-domain prints as long as I can remember. I caught one many years ago and was convinced I’d seen a masterpiece, although it’s been hard to find sources that agree. Perhaps it will be clear to all now that one company has taken it upon itself to do a digital restoration and offer a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack. Revisiting it in such clarity, I’m knocked out all over again.
I think the source of disappointment comes from people looking for a noir film, which it is, but only as a bucolic, romantic hybrid, like Deep Valley with Ida Lupino, or Frank Borzage’s brilliant Moonrise, all from the same period.
The film takes place far from the mean streets and expressionist stairways of the sophisticated urban jungle. It’s in lilting mountain country (shot in Yosemite), and at first glance the corn looks as high as an elephant’s eye. The budding Meg (Allene Roberts) seems to live in a backwoods paradise with Pete (Edward G. Robinson) and Ellen (Judith Anderson), but she yearns for classmate Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), who’s “going steady” (which means a lot of swimming) with local rich gal Tibby (Julie London), who in turn is being stalked by a brooding hunter (Rory Calhoun).
Now look closer. Pete and Ellen are brother and sister, held together by a strange secret that keeps Ellen from marrying another man, and the unrelated Meg is their adopted ward. As we go deeper into the dark psychology of Pete’s warning about the nearby woods, where nobody is allowed to go, the film spirals into his increasingly pathetic madness. His wooden leg and limp are standard symbols of crippled sexuality or repression as he becomes increasingly possessive of Meg, while Oxhead Woods is a handy symbol of the dangerous world of adult knowledge that the youngsters would discover for themselves.
From some angles, this is an eerie ghost story; from others, a Peyton Place; at its height, a suspenseful and despairing noir. Overall, this is melodrama of a high order. It’s heady stuff, with subtexts out the wazoo, all handled slowly and beautifully by writer/director Delmer Daves early in a career marked by intelligence, maturity and sexual knowledge. These country boys and girls don’t radiate naive innocence. The healthiness and maturity of Nath’s relationship with his widowed mother is not only refreshing in itself but an effective contrast with Pete’s household and an example of how the gallery of supporting characters are handled thoughtfully and believably, thus grounding the looming emotional excesses on the horizon.
Miklos Rosza’s score throws in the eerie vibes of the theremin, and Bert Glennon’s photography ranges from the sunny to the shadowy with equal beauty. All actors are excellent, and if anyone needs proof that Robinson was one of the greatest actors in Hollywood, just study his every well-balanced scene. His tour-de-force is a climactic aria in which he finally explains the backstory, mostly in a single shot, and it’s the kind of thing few actors could have pulled off with conviction, let alone the riveting and moving mixture of emotions he delivers.
The extras are a restored trailer, a brief before-and-after comparison on the restoration, and an inessential commentary by film historian William Hare.