Judge Daryl Loomis ain't seen his baby in ninety-nine-and-one-half days.
Do you think there's a man on Earth with nothing to conceal?
The Red House is a very interesting movie that's fallen into deep obscurity since its 1947 release. Since becoming public domain, it has been stricken with numerous embarrassing, unwatchable VHS and DVD releases that sit overlooked in dollar bins across the country. Finally, HD Cinema Classics has stepped up to the plate with a proper restoration of the film. It isn't perfect, but given how this film had previously been treated, I'm very happy.
Facts of the Case
Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson, Scarlet Street) is an aging one-legged farmer who can't do his work like he used to. Meg (Allene Roberts, Knock on Any Door), his adopted daughter, recruits her friend and crush—a local boy named Nath (Lon McCallister, The Story of Seabiscuit)—to come help in the evenings. At the end of Nath's first night, he decides to take a shortcut through the nearby woods (which Pete gravely warns against) and is terrified by the noises in the night. When Nath returns to spend the night, Pete becomes unusually cagey about the forest. Nath begins investigating the forest and the mysterious "Red House" Pete keeps mentioning, but the closer he gets to the truth, the closer he is to tearing the Morgan family apart.
The Red House is one of the best little-known films from this era and I hope the new release will give it the attention it deserves. The story—written for the screen by veteran Delmer Daves (Demetrius and the Gladiators) from a novel by George Agnew Chamberlain—deals almost exclusively with different manifestations of paranoia. Daves makes the classic move of taking an idyllic location and corrupting it.
The opening scene of the school bus bringing the kids home makes it seem like this could be some sort of farmhouse romance. We find Nath and his girlfriend Tibby (Julie London, The Fat Man) in the back, holding hands and making a swimming-hole date. Across the bus sits the mousey Meg, looking at them and clearly wishing she was in Tibby's place. When the bus drops Tibby off, we find Teller (Rory Calhoun, Motel Hell), a slippery looking fellow, waiting at the mailbox to hit on her as she walks up. When she doesn't rebuff his advances, a pair of love triangles emerge and we start to see things becoming chaotic.
There is more afoot than romantic problems, though. Suggestions of the supernatural give way to jealousy and possessiveness that turn almost all the characters into paranoid wrecks. Pete is the worst of the bunch, but everybody in the film suffers from it to some degree. As it manifests, loyalties change and intrigue builds, until it all comes to a head out in the woods. There's not actually anything paranormal out there—no matter how sincere Pete seemed at the start—but the truth is much scarier and more real.
Pulling these complex relationships toward the film's creepy finale are some truly stellar performances. Robinson is playing somewhat against type, but the way he sends the enfeebled farmer into madness is absolutely convincing and totally frightening. Lon McCallister and Allene Roberts, two very young stars who each had short careers, have fantastic chemistry that grows as The Red House goes forward. Judith Anderson (Rebecca) plays a small but pivotal role as Pete's compassionate cinema, which is much different than I'm used to seeing her. Rory Calhoun, too, plays much slimier than his normal good guy persona, and I like him a lot better doing it.
The acting really makes the movie, but the whole production is tops. Delmer Daves doesn't make an overly stylish picture, but it's efficient and makes good use of the Yosemite landscape. Longtime western cinematographer Bert Glennon (Swanee River) uses his chops learned in that genre to give The Red House a strange but effective feel for a thriller. Maybe most importantly, Miklós Rózsa wrote one of his very best scores for the film. Moody and sweeping, it fits the film perfectly, capping an altogether top notch viewing experience.
The HD Cinema release of The Red House isn't perfect, but it's so far superior to any of its previous releases that it gets a lot of forgiveness. The 1.33:1/1080p high definition transfer offers greatly improved detail and surprisingly little damage to the print. The big problem is the heavy use of digital noise reduction, giving everything a somewhat artificial look. Black levels are fairly murky, but the whites a bright and clear. The transfer on the DVD copy looks basically the same, with slightly less detail in the background. The audio mix is better, though not perfect, either. The dialog all sounds pretty good, but there is enough background noise to muddy Rózsa's score, which is especially disappointing.
Bonus features aren't particularly impressive. A restoration demo shows how much better the image looks, which is somewhat valuable. The commentary from author William Hare is pompous and uninteresting, settling for flatly describing what's happening onscreen. The trailer and a DVD copy of the film closes out the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Red House can barely be called Film Noir, but I guess it counts. It deals with secret pasts and the efforts to keep them hidden, trading heavily in the romantic potential of intrigue, and characters who are most certainly on the seedier side. Its deep country setting and lack of any particularly noir-ish style prevent me from really classifying it in that style. I guess it doesn't matter in the end, because it's a heck of a thriller nonetheless, but these sorts of things tend to bug me.
It's a genuine shame how little attention The Red House has received in the sixty years since its release, but now it has a new lease on life with this Blu-ray/DVD combo from HD Cinema. It's a creepy little number with great performances, perfect for the classic thriller fan.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: HD Cinema Classics
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