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.