San Francisco International Film Festival – Novikoff Award: Pierre Rissient – House by the River

Saturday, April 28, 4:00 pm
Castro Theatre

This year’s recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award—bestowed upon an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s appreciation of world cinema—is cinephile par excellence Pierre Rissient. Join a film-loving crowd at the Castro Theatre for a conversation with Rissient and the presentation of a film he played a part in bringing back to public attention, Fritz Lang’s House by the River.

For half a century, Rissient has been a tireless forager of unduly forgotten filmmakers from cinema’s past, an enthusiastic champion of vital new voices, a trusted advisor in the editing room, a valued consultant to festivals and the author of this immortal maxim: “It is not enough to love a film. One must love it for the right reasons!” But arguably Rissient’s most significant contribution to modern film culture stems from his long association with Cannes, where for decades—in various capacities both official and clandestine, and despite his well-known lack of formal wear—he has helped to push important work onto the global stage.

In the late 1940s, director Fritz Lang’s Hollywood career was at low ebb with the box-office failure of Secret Beyond the Door (1948) and the collapse of his independent production company, Diana Productions. After a two-year filmmaking hiatus, the great director emerged at B-film factory Republic Pictures with this entertainingly dark tale of a pompously myopic writer turned conniving murderer. The ever-charming, always sleazy Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) might have a high-society wife and a waterfront house, but he seems more fascinated by the curves of the maid than of the river outside. When a forceful seduction ends in her “accidental” strangulation, he uses the murder as material for his new novel. Signing copies for adoring fans in the afternoon, dancing jigs with society swells in the evening, but nervously looking for the maid’s floating body at midnight, Stephen soon realizes that one murder may unfortunately not be enough. Acclaimed by Bertrand Tavernier for its “harrowing romanticism,” House by the River exists in a hermetically sealed world of claustrophobic interiors and its characters’ stifling pettiness, with image and tone so black it gleefully denies any hint of light. “Everything in this work,” noted Tavernier, “is a sign of death.”

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