Secrets in the woods

Being terrifying: Edward G. Robinson in The Red House (1947).

I first heard about Delmer Daves’ The Red House (1947) in Martin Scorsese’s documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies, where he hails it as a forgotten Hollywood gem.  When I managed to track it down several months later I was blown away: part film noir, part Gothic horror movie, it’s as wonderfully perverse and creepy as anything to come out of classical Hollywood cinema, with a central performance by Edward G. Robinson that’s one of his best.  (It’s certainly his scariest.)  Robinson plays a recluse who lives on an isolated farm with his spinster sister (Judith Anderson!) and their adopted daughter (!?) Meg (Allene Roberts), cut off from the nearest town by a forest that hides the mysterious red house of the film’s title. 

Domestic scene: Allene Roberts, Edward G. Robinson, and Judith Anderson, with Lon McCallister (far left).

The plot of the film is driven by teenage Meg’s desire to solve the mystery of the house, which is linked to the mystery of her own shadowy parentage.  The moment at which she comes upon the house for the first time, overgrown and rotting, is sublime: without even understanding why, she stares at it in wonder and fear, and a single tear runs down her cheek.  It’s as if she is experiencing an epiphany that she’s not even conscious of.  Such moments are perhaps more often found in cheap B movies like The Red House than in A-list prestige pictures from this period, in which the emotional beats are more deliberately placed and clearly definable.       

So The Red House has Edward G. Robinson being terrifying and Judith Anderson being queer (as usual) and the two of them living in a kind of quasi-incestuous surrogate marriage with a daughter that Robinson may or may not have fathered illegitimately.  And then there’s a young Julie London as the local coquette with whom Meg competes for the affections of the local farmhand.  And a young, rakishly sexy Rory Calhoun as the gamekeeper hired by Robinson to police the woods, who spends most of his time leaning against trees with his flannel shirt unbuttoned to the chest.  And a suitably menacing score by Miklos Rosza.  A forgotten gem to be sure.


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