There are many movies that are nowadays labelled as film noir that turn out on closer examination not to be. Most are in fact regular crime films (in some cases very good ones). But House of Strangers is something else again. It’s not really film noir but nor is it really a crime film either.
It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz for Fox in 1949. It certainly starts out with most of the noir trademarks in evidence.
Max Monetti (Richard Conte) has just been released from prison after serving seven years. At this stage we don’t know why he was in prison and we will not find out until much later. What is clear is that he has a grudge against his three brothers, Joe (Luther Adler), Pietro (Paul Valentine) and Tony (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and that it has something to do with his prison sentence.
Max’s three brothers are bankers, and very successful and very prosperous bankers. They offer Max money but he contemptuously rejects it. Money doesn’t bring back seven years of a man’s life. At this stage it looks like a straightforward film noir revenge drama
We have even more reason to think we’re in for a film noir when, just before the flashback, we’re introduced to Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward). She sure looks like a femme fatale, and they obviously have a history and it’s obviously a complicated history. Whatever that history was it was also clearly passionate and seems to bring back bitter memories, confirming our feeling that Irene is going to be the femme fatale.
When the movie switches to a very lengthy flashback (which actually consumes most of the movie) the suspicion that this is a film noir seems to be confirmed. So far it’s ticked all the boxes.
Seven years earlier Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) had run the Monetti bank. He ran it in his own highly individualistic way, and he ran his family in the same individualistic and very autocratic style. Joe, Tony and Pietro all worked in the bank, all of them for derisory salaries, but none of them dared to complain since they knew the bank would be theirs when Gino died. The fourth brother, Max, was the odd man out. He is a lawyer and although his office was in the bank building he was, unlike his brothers, independent. He made his own money and was his own boss. He was also clearly the favourite son. As we will later found out his favoured status had a great deal to do with the fact that he had his own career and was not just waiting around for the old man to die.
Max is engaged to a nice Italian girl, the daughter of an old friend of the family. Max’s life was pretty good but it was about to get complicated. The complication appeared in the form of spoilt rich girl Irene Bennett. She wanted him to take on a case, but clearly what she really wanted was Max. And what Irene wants Irene generally gets.
Gino has even bigger problems. The New York state government has passed a new Banking Act and it contains all kinds of rules, not one of which Gino has ever conformed to. Even worse, they want to see his books. That’s rather inconvenient since Gino has never believed in keeping books. He wouldn’t know how to if he wanted to. He conducts his business informally according to his own rules. It’s not that he is really a crook, but when a banker has no books to produce the authorities are bound to take that sort of thing the wrong way. And even if he hasn’t done anything that he would consider to be morally wrong his entire way of running the bank is technically illegal. Now he’s facing twenty-two felony charges.
Max is a shrewd lawyer and he thinks he’s found a way to get the old man off the hook but it will require his three brothers to take some responsibility and some risks. Now Gino will pay the price for his autocratic style as a father. Joe, Pietro and Tony are not interested in taking any risks to help a father they believe has never treated them with the respect they deserve (although in fact not one of the three has ever done anything in his life to earn any respect). Max thinks there may be another way to save Gino, but it’s even more risky, and he’s the one who will have to run all the risks.
When the flashback ends we seem to be back in revenge territory but the plot now takes an unexpected twist, and then a further unexpected twist as Max finds that the past has a way of catching up with people.
It all sounds pretty much a classic noir but the reason I believe it isn’t is that the intentions of Mankiewicz (and presumably also to some extent of screenwriter Philip Yordan) are very different. He’s not interested in making a crime movie. What interests him are the family dynamics. The hatreds, the jealousies, the resentments, the betrayals and most of all the power dynamics of the Monetti family are Mankeiwicz’s primary concerns. Power dynamics are what the Monetti family is all about. Gino had all the power, and he exercised it ruthlessly. It’s not that he was an evil man as such. He simply failed to realise that power has its price and it’s a price that is paid by those with the power and by those without. Without realising it he became a monster.
Three years earlier in 1946 Mankiewicz had directed Somewhere in the Night which is definitely a film noir but House of Strangers actually has more in common with the film he was to make the following year in 1950, All About Eve. While it has enough features to justify calling it a film noir House of Strangers is really a savage family melodrama. Which was probably much more to Mankiewicz’s tastes than making a straight crime movie.
Edward G. Robinson pulls out all the stops and threatens to act everyone else off the screen. He can’t act Richard Conte off the screen though. Conte (who seems to be in every movie I watch these days) is perfectly cast, it’s a good role, he knows it and he’s determined to make the most of it. His superbly controlled performance contrasts beautifully with Robinson’s theatrical fireworks. Susan Hayward is also excellent in a part that doesn’t play out in quite the way we expect.
Mankiewicz’s direction might not be overly stylish but he’s good at directing actors and he’s in his element in this kind of melodrama (and I don’t use the word melodrama in any kind of pejorative sense here). This is an intelligent and thoughtful dissection of power and loyalty within what would today certainly be regarded as a spectacularly dysfunctional family. Highly recommended, and film noir fans should not be disappointed either.
The Region 4 DVD is barebones but it’s a good transfer.