Thursday, September 8, 2011

House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

Apart from marketing it’s difficult to understand why The House on Telegraph Hill gets included in Fox’s Film Noir DVD series. It’s quite a good movie, but it’s more in the style of Hitchcock’s mystery thrillers such as Suspicion, Notorious and Rebecca.

The film opens in a concentration camp. Two Polish women have become friends. Victoria (played by Cortese) survives; her friend Karin doesn’t. Karin had family in the United States, so in order to escape the misery of postwar Europe (and the horrors of communism although of course that isn’t going to get a mention in a Fox film of this era) Victoria takes her identity. It proves to be a smart move. Karin’s family in San Francisco has serious money and almost all of them are now deceased. With Karin presumed to have perished in the camps the sole heir to the family fortune is Karin’s little boy, Christopher. Now that “Karin” has unexpectedly retuned she finds herself a wealthy woman.

Alan Spender (Richard Basehart) had been appointed as Christopher’s guardian some years before, when his mother sent him out of Poland to the US. Spender has no money of his own but he has ambition. After a whirlwind romance he and Karin (I’ll refer to her as Karin from now on for the sake of simplicity) are married.

At this point Victoria’s nightmare seems to be over. She has been accepted as Karin, she has plenty of money, a good-looking new husband and she has the family’s house at the top of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. It’s a curious rather gothic-looking house but it’s large and comfortable with some of the best views the city has to offer. There’s also Christopher - he’s happy to accept the false Karin as his mother and she quickly finds herself growing fond of the boy. Life is pretty good.

This being a movie of course it can’t be that simple. The first complication for her is the discovery that the kindly US Army officer, Major Marc Bennett, who processed her application to come to the US is in fact an old acquaintance of Alan Spender’s. An acquaintance, but definitely not a friend. Alan’s poverty and Marc’s wealth,and Alan’s resentment of that wealth, had been an insurmountable barrier to friendship. Marc’s reappearance reawakens Karin’s anxieties about her stolen identity. And Marc tells her he’s in love with her.

There is also the mystery of the explosion in Christopher’s play house which no-one wants to talk about. Karin is told the boy had a mishap with his chemistry set but the play house looks like a bomb hit it. And then the brakes on Karin’s car fail. And her suspicions start to grow. Could Alan be planning to kill her? And to make Karin’s position more difficult the boy’s governess, Margaret, seems to hate her.

This is a well-made movie (as you’d expect with Robert Wise in the director’s chair) and it’s an effective suspense thriller but there’s something missing. It’s like the emotional heart of the movie just isn’t there.

The problem lies in the acting, or at least in some of the performances. Richard Basehart is very good, and he captures the ambiguity of Alan’s character perfectly. We really don’t know what to think - there are grounds for suspecting him, at times he seems like perhaps he could be a murderer, but then he seems such a normal guy. Basehart is not the problem.

William Lundigan as Marc is certainly part of the problem. He’s likeable but he’s so laid-back he’s almost sleepwalking. He’s supposed to be nursing an adulterous passion for another man’s wife but he’s about as excited about it as most of us would be about choosing a new pair of shoes.

The biggest problem though is the lead actress. The House on Telegraph Hill was part of Darryl F. Zanuck’s scheme to make a major star out of Valentina Cortese. A new type of European Hollywood star. The attempt failed and it’s easy to see why. She’s terrible. She gives us no insight at all into Karin’s emotions. Given her assumption of another woman’s identity and the fact that she’s involved in a potentially deadly romantic triangle you’d assume that her emotional life would be fairly tumultuous but we see nothing. And there’s zero chemistry between her and Lundigan. Even more surprising (given that they were married a year later) there’s zero chemistry between her and Basehart as well. The flatness of the performances of Lundigan and Cortese makes it hard to get really involved in the fates of the characters.

It may not be entirely her fault. She’s already made many movies in Europe and she went on to have a long career in European movies after leaving Hollywood. Perhaps she just wasn’t comfortable with the Hollywood star-making process. She’s clearly having huge problems with the language in this movie which must have made it difficult for her to breathe life into her role.

It’s also obvious that there must have been some major rewriting of the script. There are subplots that go nowhere, and in some cases they’re not just subplots, they’re core elements of the story. The stolen identity angle, potentially the most interesting aspect to the film, just gets forgotten. The impression the movie gives is that large chunks must have been hacked out of the script which has a ragged unfinished feel to it.

The end result is a competent and visually impressive thriller that entertains without really engaging the viewer’s emotions.

As usual Fox have done a fine job with the DVD presentation.

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