June 20, 2011

8 The Red House (1947)

Country: US
Director: Delmer Daves

A strange family living in self-imposed isolation, carefully guarded family secrets, an eerie forest rumored to be inhabited by spirits, a sinister abandoned house deep in that forest, a teenage girl with hazy memories of something terrible happening in that house—these are classic elements of Gothic melodrama found in the atmospheric 1947 thriller The Red House. The family in question are farmer Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson), his unmarried sister Ellen (Judith Anderson), and their adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts). Into their lives comes Meg's high school classmate Nath Storm (Lon McAllister), hired to help out on the Morgans' farm. His curiosity aroused by Pete's dark warnings to avoid the neighboring forest, Nath determines to get to the bottom of whatever Pete is concealing about the mysterious red house in the woods, persuading Meg to defy Pete and help him.

In The Red House Edward G. Robinson turns in another of his memorable performances of the 1940s. His Pete, a brusque man with a soft spot for his adopted daughter Meg, at first seems not too different from the loving father Robinson played a couple of years earlier in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. His desire to shield Meg from the danger he perceives in the forest seems a genuine one, the result of an overly protective attitude understandable in the parent of a young woman on the verge of adulthood. But faced with the challenge presented by Nath's presence on the farm, Pete begins to show a darker side as he grows almost neurotically possessive of Meg. As it becomes more apparent that she is experiencing an adolescent sexual awakening and transferring her feelings of daughterly love for Pete to romantic love for Nath, can Pete be viewing Nath as a rival? Several scenes—such as the one where he jealously confronts Meg in her bedroom late at night after he realizes Nath has just left by the window, threatening to kill him if he ever catches him in her room again—clearly hint at this. If he does see the young man as a rival for Meg's love, what is the true nature of his feelings for Meg?

Robinson subtly conveys Pete's conflict over his confused feelings for his adopted daughter as well as the mounting agitation Pete feels as he comes to look upon Nath as an interloper trying to steal Meg away from him. By the end of the picture, Pete has become completely unhinged by the tensions of dealing with his feelings for Meg, the consuming guilt he feels over his past misdeeds, and his desperate attempts to keep his secrets buried by placing the red house off-limits. In portraying Pete's final break with reality, Robinson avoids histrionics, and his restraint makes Pete's madness seem all the more convincing and pathetic. It's a wonderful performance that shows how skilled Robinson was at plumbing the contradictory emotions and the self-delusion of a man like Pete, almost certainly bringing greater complexity to the character than was originally intended.

The other standout performance in the film is by Allene Roberts, who was only seventeen years old when the picture was shot. Roberts is especially good at suggesting Meg's dawning awareness of sexuality. Nath has a girl friend, a sluttish classmate named Tibby, played with feral intensity by an impossibly young-looking Julie London. In one scene, Meg watches from the shore as Nath and Tibby go swimming in a nearby lake and observes with obvious fascination the sexually charged interplay between them. Like Robinson, Allene Roberts makes Meg, who might otherwise have been a superficial character, someone unexpectedly complex. In the early part of the film she seems naive and biddable, devoted to Pete. Later, as she tries to break free of Pete's domination, she begins for the first time in her life to question what she has been told about her history rather than simply accepting it. Roberts does a remarkable job of depicting this transition from girlish credulity to adult skepticism. Scene by scene, you can sense her growing more assertive and independent and less inclined to blind faith in the man she has always considered her father.

The film takes its time setting up the situation and seems a bit lethargic for the first twenty minutes or so. But as the characters' relationships begin to shift and re-form and more details are revealed about the events at the heart of the mystery, the pace picks up and the mood grows more portentous. The brisk conclusion, with its noir-influenced framing and lighting, in particular is well mounted. The location photography by Bert Glennon (The Scarlet Empress, Stagecoach) in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in northern California adds a great deal of verisimilitude to the picture. The small town where Nath's mother runs the general store, the gentle countryside of dairy farms and apple orchards, the tangled forest with its streams, lakes, and stark outcroppings of rock give an authenticity often lacking in the studio product of the time. The highly dramatic music score by Miklos Rozsa with its subtle use of theremin effectively underscores the strangeness of the plot.

The Red House is unlikely to make anyone forget Rebecca, but it's a satisfying movie that succeeds on the strength of its ominous atmosphere and a pair of quietly powerful performances. It takes the Arthur Conan Doyle device of miscreants creating the illusion of the supernatural to direct attention away from their all-too-human crimes and updates it with a large dash of Freud.

Allene Roberts discusses her brief Hollywood career in a 2009 interview at the website Films of the Golden Age. Click here to read it.


  1. Nice write-up. I remember that Robinson put his own money into the film, and he seems to really go for it — especially in the end moments, which are pretty scary. This is one of the many films that has fallen into the public domain and is consequently difficult to find a quality print of. I'm not sure if it has aired on TCM or not, but the version I've seen is barely watchable, and difficult to hear. I'd love to see this get restored!

  2. R.D., I was thrilled to see that you reviewed a Delmer Daves movie. Daves was a skilled writer and director that never got his due--in my opinion anyway. He was almost as versatile as Robert Wise and perhaps that worked against him. But I believe his Westerns THE HANGING TREE and 3:10 TO YUMA are two genuine genre classics. And while Douglas Sirk's soaps became a retro craze, Daves' superior soaps are often treated as camp. All of this brings me to your excellent review of THE RED HOUSE, which encapsulates the three key ingredients of a Delmer Daves film: strong interpersonal relationships among the characters; effective use of music; and natural settings that enhance the film's moods. Whether it's THE HANGING TREE, A SUMMER PLACE, or THE RED HOUSE, you can spot these Daves components in each of his pictures. Delmer Daves was a pretty interesting guy, a Stanford grad with a law degree who wrote some Hollywood classics before becoming a director. By the way, like Mark, I would love to see a good print of THE RED HOUSE. Its rights went into the public domain years ago and that has led to horrible video transfers.

  3. Mark, thanks for leaving a comment. The DVD of this film, which I got from the library, was on an obscure label and the transfer was only fair--a worn, scratchy print and poor level of contrast in the b&w photography. Fortunately, I was able to get past this and appreciate its strengths. I'd certainly agree that it's worthy of restoration. It would be a real treat to see those great visuals in pristine condition.

    Rick, I'd seen only those soaps from the late 50s-early 60s years ago, and I have to say they do strike me as slick, well-made camp. But then I saw "3:10 from Yuma" a couple of years ago and drastically revised my opinion of Daves, especially after I started doing a bit of research on him. I was just getting seriously interested in Westerns at the time and thought "Yuma" was one of the near-great films of that genre. I've seen a number of his films since then and enjoyed all of them, but especially the Westerns. I saw "The Hanging Tree" a few months ago and was quite impressed. It's at least as good as A. Mann's "Man of the West," which many have called a masterpiece, and I think I actually preferred it. For me it's Gary Cooper's most interesting post-"High Noon" performance, and Maria Schell was a revelation. I was surprised when I saw the impressive list of Daves's writing credits. An interesting observation on the three key ingredients of the typical Delmer Daves movie. One thing that occurred to me as I was writing this post was how Daves's fascination with teen sexuality looked ahead to those later soaps!

  4. Great article on a particular favorite of mine. I second, and third, the call for a good copy to be made of this. The dupey, public domain copies floating around out there can only give a mere indication about how the film really looks. Visually, it's a stunner.

    The Rozsa score is a stunner as well, one of his best. It was the third and final time he used the theremin, after using it in "Spellbound" and "The Lost Weekend." He declined to use it after "The Red House" because he was afraid it would become a trademark for him. It's eerie tone fits right into those forest scenes.

    William Wyler wanted Rozsa to use the theremin whenever Christ appeared in "Ben-Hur" but Rozsa wisely refused.

    Count me as another Delmer Daves fan. I think he's very underrated as a director of westerns, as they're almost all keepers. "Broken Arrow" holds up well, and I've always been very fond of one he made with Richard Widmark called "The Last Wagon." Of course "3:10 to Yuma" is great. Could be Glenn Ford's best performance.

  5. Kevin, judging from the comments left here, it seems that this film has made quite a few fans among those who have seen it and that Daves has his own following as well. I've seen "Broken Arrow" and "The Last Wagon" in the last few months and found both quite entertaining. As a fan of John Garfield, I found the film he made with Daves, "Pride of the Marines," very good and was particularly struck by the dream sequence in it, far more imaginative than the typical dream sequence of the time and still impressive today.

  6. THE HANGING TREE is my favorite Cooper film and ranks among my three favorite Westerns. Daves does a splendid job recreating the mining community and the people who inhabit it. I love the closing scene where Maria is walking away after "buying her man's life" and Cooper calls out: "Elizabeth!" Then, she turns & walks towards him and he kneels down to face her, with the hanging tree flanking them...it's an iconic shot that grabbed me when I first saw the film as a kid. And darn, the Marty Robbins song is catchy, too. Sorry to stray from THE RED HOUSE discussion!

  7. I recall this as quite a creepy film, in part from the spooky build-up of the atmosphere surrounding the red house (it certainly can be considered a title 'character') and in part from the tension in Robinson's obsession. Interesting point you make about the film's Gothic trappings, which are here transposed to an idyllic American rural setting--probably the last place were you would expect to find it, so it makes for an unsettling contrast. Thanks for an excellent post.

  8. Rick, your comments about "The Hanging Tree" have reminded me how much I liked that movie and that while watching it I couldn't help wondering if Clint Eastwood had seen it before making "Pale Rider." I also recall thinking that its cynical view of an Old West mining town seemed to anticipate "Deadwood," although that series of course took the idea much further.

    GOM, I certainly have to agree that the contrast between the sunny surface elements and the dark undercurrents contribute greatly to the disturbing and creepy aura of the film, as does the contrast between the guilt of Robinson and the innocence of the daughter. Your comment reminds me of the observation Sherlock Holmes makes in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" about the seemingly safe countryside concealing all sorts of "hidden wickedness."