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The Red House (March 16, 1947)

The Red House

The Red House (1947)
Directed by Delmer Daves
Sol Lesser Productions / United Artists

Is there really a red house in Delmer Daves’s The Red House? The movie is filmed in black and white, so I can’t tell you.

I’m not being cheeky, I’m making a point. The “red house” in The Red House is a haunting presence, unseen for most of the film. And when it is finally shown, it’s an eerie sight. It’s a structure in disrepair, covered in lichen, standing close to another abandoned house, both on the banks of a stream deep in the woods.

If The Red House had been filmed in color, this uncanny effect would have been destroyed. As it is, the red house — while shown — still stands more strongly as a disturbing manifestation of all the creepy goings-on in the film than as an actual thing.

The setting of the film is indeterminate. It’s a region called Piny Ridge, where, the narrator informs us, “modern highways have penetrated the darkness.” The darkness remains in an area farther south called Oxhead Woods, where “obsolete trails wander vaguely,” but “only one leads to the Morgan Farm.”

The narrator goes on to tell us that “Pete Morgan’s farm has the allure of a walled castle that everybody knows about, but that few have entered.” This all sounds a bit like a fairy tale, which I think is deliberate.

Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) is a mercurial farmer who lives a lonely life with his sister, Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson), and their adopted daughter, a pretty, demure 17-year-old named Meg (Allene Roberts). Fifteen years earlier, Meg’s parents both died in mysterious circumstances, and Pete and Ellen have raised her ever since.

Pete has a wooden leg, which makes farm work difficult, so he agrees to hire one of Meg’s high school classmates, Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), to help him out. Pete offers to pay Nath 35 cents an hour for his help after school, but Nath talks him up to four bits.

Pete seems reluctant to hire Nath, and is only convinced to do so by his sister and adopted daughter. It’s clear from the outset why this is. He has an unnatural interest in Meg, and wants to keep her all to himself.

After his first day helping out Pete, Nath plans to take a shortcut home through Oxhead Woods, but Pete tries to convince him to take the long way around. When Nath refuses to heed his warnings, Pete resorts to scare tactics. “You won’t save yourself from the screams in the night that’ll lodge in your bones all your life!” Pete tells him.

Nath asks, “Screams from what?”

Pete responds, “From the red house!!!”

Nath tries, but he can’t do it. The power of suggestion in the dark, terrifying woods amidst the howling winds proves too much for him, and he runs back to the Morgan farm and sleeps in the barn. Were they real screams? Or was it just the wind?

Meg and Nath are attracted to each other, but he has a girlfriend named Tibby, who’s played by the 20-year-old singer and actress Julie London. London is quite possibly the sultriest high school student I’ve ever seen in a film from the ’40s.

Tibby’s not very loyal to Nath, and throws herself at the strapping young woodsman named Teller (Rory Calhoun) who patrols Pete Morgan’s woods with a rifle. Teller never got past the ninth grade, but he’s as big and as handsome as Li’l Abner.

Teller is also the instrument of Pete Morgan’s twisted will, and goes even so far as attempting to commit murder when Pete Morgan asks him to.

The Red House, which is based on the 1943 novel by George Agnew Chamberlain, is sometimes classified as a film noir, but it’s not a noir. It’s a mystery wrapped up inside of a dreamy, avant-garde horror film. It’s halfway between Jean Renoir’s ode to rural American life The Southerner (1945) and Frank Wisbar’s backwoods ghost story Strangler of the Swamp (1946).

Daves’s naturalistic take on the uncanny tale, coupled with a lush score by Miklós Rózsa that alternates between being wildly dramatic and quietly eerie, elevates the pedestrian script and easy-to-figure-out mystery. The Red House could have easily been a forgettable B movie, but it’s a memorable little chiller with heavy doses of perverse sexuality running beneath the surface. With a few changes in costuming and dialogue, it could just as easily have taken place 300 years earlier, which is part of its power and its appeal.

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San Antonio (Dec. 28, 1945)

San Antonio, directed by David Butler (with uncredited assistance from Robert Florey and Raoul Walsh), is a journeyman effort from start to finish. A lavish, Technicolor production, the film looks great, and its stuntwork and cinematography are top-notch. The final showdown, a three-way shootout staged at nighttime in the ruins of the Alamo, is especially well-done. But San Antonio never aspires to be anything more than middlebrow entertainment. It’s a star vehicle for Errol Flynn, a showcase for a couple of musical numbers by Alexis Smith, and not much more.

Flynn plays a rancher named Clay Hardin, one of the survivors of a vicious war that has raged for years between ranch owners and the rustlers who decimate their herds by running nightly raids and then rebranding and reselling the cattle at various points along the more than 1,000 miles of border that Texas shares with Mexico. Hardin was falsely branded a criminal, and when the film begins, we find him living in Mexico in exile. He finally has in his possession evidence that could clear his name, a tally book containing records of all the illegal cattle sales made by Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly), the cattle baron of San Antonio. With the tally book and his good friend Charlie Bell (John Litel), Hardin returns to San Antonio prepared to mete out justice. Along the way, he crosses paths with a singer named Jeanne Starr (Smith), as well as her attendant Henrietta (Florence Bates) and her roly-poly manager Sacha Bozic (S.Z. Sakall, who is curiously listed in the credits as “S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall”). Bozic and Henrietta provide comic relief in helpings that are a little too large, and Jeanne provides romantic interest and a couple of songs.

This wasn’t the first time Smith appeared opposite Flynn. The two starred together in Dive Bomber (1941) and Gentleman Jim (1942). I found their chemistry in San Antonio lukewarm. For a man who was reportedly a stone-cold freak in private, Flynn is remarkably wooden in many of his roles. In San Antonio he’s still working the “dashing” angle he perfected in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he looks closer to the “world weary” angle that he would later play to perfection in the excellent black and white western Rocky Mountain (1950).

San Antonio doesn’t drag, and it’s solid western entertainment. The production values are high, the action is well-staged, and Victor Francen delivers a juicy turn as a villain named Legare, but overall it’s just O.K., with a run-of-the-mill story and passable performances by the leads. If you love the music of the period, Smith’s performance of “Some Sunday Morning” will be a highlight, but if you’re a fan of more historically accurate westerns, the songs in the film date it about as badly as Flynn’s perfect coiffure and jaunty red neckerchief.