The setting ofThe Red House(1947) is pleasant enough, though while it used to be an extensively and exclusively rural area of forests and fields, “no longer is the region a mystery,” as the film’s opening narrator states. The region is growing up, with roads, buildings, and an increasing small town populace. But this evolution and expansion is not so for the Morgan farm, a puzzling “walled castle” that everyone in the area knows about but few visit. On the property reside Peter Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) and his sister, Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson), along with Meg (Allene Roberts), a high school girl the siblings have been raising since the death of her parents when she was just a baby. Soon to join them is Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), a classmate of Meg’s and the rather unenthusiastic boyfriend of the comparatively more eager Tibby (Julie London). Though Pete is clearly not a fan of Meg bringing a boy around, and, even more broadly, contends that an outsider would spoil the way things are (whatever that may mean), he agrees to accept Nath’s help around the farm. As will become evident, Meg’s interest in having Nath nearby is based on more than her concern for her aging father figure.
The farmland is idyllic but isolated, adamantly so. It is the kind of place so remote and so purposefully tucked away that it can only be that way for a reason. This kind of blatant seclusion doesn’t just happen by accident. At dinner one evening, Nath works up the nerve to politely inquire about the household, even noting that locals refer to the brother and sister as the “Mysterious Morgans.” We may be surprised by Nath’s innocent gall, and Pete balks at the suggestion of anything unusual taking place, but we do have to wonder: What exactly is their arrangement? When Meg argues that, “There’s nothing wrong with being adopted. I’m grateful,” it may merely be Roberts’ performance (which isn’t great—this was just her first film), but she says so with the earnestness of a programmed robot, and neither we, nor perhaps Nath, are entirely convinced.
At the mention of the surrounding Ox Head woods, Miklós Rózsa’s spectacularly flamboyant score reaches an ominous tenor and the scene shifts into crazed panic; it’s an abrupt change of mood that will be repeated throughout the film. Pete aggressively—maniacally—discourages Nath from taking a short cut through the woods, warning him about screams that emanate from a cryptic red house. “Did you ever run away from a scream?” yells the blistering, suddenly crazed man. “It will follow you all of your life!” An exaggerated wind howls, the tempo accelerates, the imagery turns sinister and distressing. What just happened here?
Though Nath refused to heed Pete’s warning, sure enough, the boy is turned back, or turns back; the motivations are left somewhat sketchy. Clearly he is scared either way. Pete phones the boy’s parents to let them know he is staying the night. Curiously, though, he does so without even seeing him return—he knew he’d be back. When Nath is later attacked in the woods, and we see it was not the presumed Pete, we are left to wonder about the possibility that maybe there is a malevolent force at work. It is surely enough to awaken Meg’s curiosity. And this is just the beginning.
InThe Red House, available now on a new Blu-ray from The Film Detective, there are two paths toward darkness and corruption. The first is through the torment of one’s physical and/or psychological past. Tibby spills the beans about Nath and Meg’s exploration into the woods, which prompts Pete to threaten Meg with a whipping should she continue her prying ways. He then enters a closet and grabs a gun. Quite the neurotic landowner, he has a plan to protect the woods by apparently whatever means necessary. But is it the woods themselves, or what they symbolically conceal? All we know at the start is that Pete has been anguished by the enigmatic red house, and it is clear the titular building means different things to different people. The perceptions revolve around dormant passions (potentially forced into remission), with haunting memories and associative implications—those realistic or more along the euphemistic lines. The house stands in for latent desires, but when it is finally seen by Meg, the structure is ramshackle and overgrown; there seems to be nothing seductive here, at least not on the surface. She is nevertheless transfixed, begins to cry, and runs away.
The Red Houseis full of these strange reactions, with director Delmer Daves and three-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Bert Glennon intensely holding on the faces of the characters to reveal… what? When they were out exploring earlier, as soon as Tibby mentioned a dead end, Meg went into a hypnotic trance, captured in a noticeably long 20 second close up with whimsical musical accompaniment. But what does that obvious emphasis mean? Delirious emotions tinged with suppressed ferocity repeatedly take on near metaphysical heights as a result of Daves’ feverish direction in this his fifth film.
Wild fluctuations in behavior are even more prominent with Pete, and Robinson is amazing as he personifies his character’s secretive suffering with a glazed over expression of vacant yet ever escalating insanity. Pete says people are “born helpless.” Perhaps so, but one gets the sense this is the way Pete likes it, and it is the way he intends to keep things around the farm, specifically Meg. It might not even be that Pete is necessarily evil in the conventional sense, but that he is simply sensitive to his own demons and subsequently projects these insecurities into his own over-protectiveness. As the revelations inevitably arise, Pete even emerges as a somewhat pathetic figure, or at least a sadly vulnerable one.
The second path toward temptation inThe Red Houseis that which is spurred on by Tibby, a tempting, strutting teenage vixen who no sooner has Nath out of her sight than she is making her moves on bad-boy Teller (Rory Calhoun in his most prominent early role), whom she then provocatively informs that she knows things they don’t teach in school (this is 1947, after all). The two of them are trouble alone and are even worse when unified, which is where they find themselves after Teller convinces Tibby to assist him in a mischievous enterprise. For Meg and Nath, these two more worldly figures are the snake to their Eden.
Suggestive banter isn’t reserved for Teller and Tibby alone, though. An undercurrent of budding sexuality runs all throughThe Red House. The very first scene has Tibby telling Nath not to wear his swimming trunks to their next outing—change when they get there, she says, it will just be the two of them anyway. Certainly by comparison to this, Meg is reserved and bashful, but before long, jealousy sets in and a parallel romantic antagonism emerges alongside the film’s mystery narrative.
Like her hometown, Meg is growing up, branching out, getting older, and moving beyond what she once knew. She and Nath clearly have a fix on each other and together they are keen to explore, and not just the woods. Now it could be an unreasonably twisted interpretation, but there are more than a few moments where the dialogue indicates something beyond its apparent topicality. For example:
MEG: “I WISH WE WERE PROWLING IN THE WOODS TODAY.”NATH: “I WISH TIBBY HAD FORGOTTEN OUR DATE.”MEG: “SO DO I.”NATH: “THERE’S SOMETHING OUT IN THOSE WOODS. SOMETHING TELLS ME WE WON’T FIND OUT WHAT IT IS UNTIL I FIND THE RED HOUSE.”MEG: “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH IT WHEN WE FIND IT?”NATH: “BUST IT OPEN, I GUESS, AND LET SOME LIGHT IN. MAYBE IT’LL SHAKE THE CREEPS OUT OF A LOT OF THINGS.”MEG PUTS HER HAND ON NATH’S ARM AND THEY LOOK EACH OTHER IN THE EYE. MEG: “WE’LL FIND IT.”
Sigmund Freud supposedly—ironically—said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Similarly, a red house may just be a red house. But it also may represent something far more intimate and, for Meg, something more overwhelming. It may be something more in line withThe Red House’scoming of age subplot and its theme of innocence lost.
Delmer Daves, an excellent, diverse director, does an extraordinary job at creating a subtly crafted sense of dread inThe Red House, shooting many of the same locations by day and by night (interiors and exteriors), setting up the contrast in atmosphere when darkness falls. We are in the same places we just were, but now things have taken on a whole other dimension, all thanks to some economically manipulative lighting and camera work (it’s little wonderThe Red Housedraws comparisons to those pictures produced by the similarly efficient Val Lewton). Then sometimes there are single shots that perfectly tap into the film’s odd combination of wholesomeness and viciousness fighting for control over the story, even at the same time in the same setting. When Ellen enters Meg’s room to reassure the girl about Nath, we see blood streaming down the older woman’s arm while Meg sleepily sits up in bed, in her pajamas, with bright sunlight streaming through the bedroom window. It’s a jarring juxtaposition of violence seeping into typically untainted situations, a discrepancyThe Red Housecontinually employs to great effect