Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tonight's Movie: The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL is an excellent suspense film in the "gothic noir" tradition, focusing on a heroine in peril in a spooky old house. It fits right in line with predecessors such as EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944) and THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947).

We first see Victoria Kowelska (Valentina Cortese, billed as Valentina Cortesa here) as a Polish prisoner in a German concentration camp during World War II. Her best friend Karin (Natasha Lytess) dies just before they are liberated; Victoria's family are all gone, and she assumes Karin's identity, knowing that Karin has distant family in the United States who might be able to provide her with safety and security. In fact, Karin's little boy, Chris (Gordon Gebert), has been cared for by her relations for the duration of the war.

When the newly minted "Karin" arrives in the U.S., she meets and quickly marries Chris's guardian Alan (Richard Basehart) and moves into the family home on Telegraph Hill. Karin thinks she loves Alan, and she's honest enough to admit to herself that after what she's been through, she also loves the idea of a husband, child, and safe home in America.

Briefly all seems well, although Karin must contend with the jealousy of Margaret (Fay Baker), the nanny who has raised Chris. But then Karin's life is jeopardized in a troubling series of incidents. Is her husband trying to kill her, and why? Perhaps family friend and lawyer Marc Bennett (William Lundigan), who first met Karin during the war and has come to love her, can help her unravel the mystery...

The film follows a fairly familiar path, including suspicious bedtime drinks -- at least the filmmakers do a little twist on SUSPICION (1941) and THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS and change the questionable drink the husband serves from milk to orange juice!

The knight in shining armor character rescuing the heroine from the clutches of the evil hubby and oppressive home is also quite familiar, whether it's George Brent in EXPERIMENT PERILOUS, Patrick O'Moore in THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, or Cary Grant in the final scenes of NOTORIOUS (1946). However, this aspect is no less welcome than it was in the other films!

The plot may be fairly recognizable, but it's stylishly executed and well acted, providing a most enjoyable movie experience. Extensive location shots of San Francisco give the film an authentic and interesting atmosphere. Cortese is touching as the woman who has lived through one nightmare and thinks she's finally achieved her own small slice of paradise, with a loving husband and cute little boy she adores, only to find that she's living an altogether different kind of very bad dream.

I admit to a real soft spot for William Lundigan and his smile. He may not have had the widest range as an actor, but there's a solid sense of integrity and reliability in his demeanor, mixed with a charm which I find very appealing. My favorite Lundigan film, I'D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN, was released the same year as THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL; he was well cast in that film as an earnest minister. His four films in 1951 also included ELOPEMENT, reviewed here in March.

One of the things I really liked about THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL was the way it handled Karin disclosing her true identity to Marc; he's not fazed for a moment, quietly reminding her that he'd seen the concentration camp during the war himself. I appreciated that the story didn't use Karin/Victoria's lie to drive a wedge between the characters; while it sets up the story, in the end it's a sideline. In fact, the viewer senses that the real Karin would be happy knowing that her child had a loving mother in Karin/Victoria.

Another factor in the film's familiarity was the casting of Richard Basehart as the psychotic husband. Basehart excelled at playing disturbed types, with his notable roles including performances in HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) and 14 HOURS (1951). The main difference between this and some of his previous roles is that the demented personality isn't immediately apparent, but is hidden behind a smooth exterior.

Ironically, Basehart and costar Cortese were married shortly before TELEGRAPH HILL was released. The marriage lasted most of a decade. Basehart died in 1984; Cortese is now 88 years old.

I was unfamiliar with Fay Baker, who plays Margaret, the nanny. She's quite striking and effective in an unusual role as a woman who's hard to entirely figure out. The character and performance are one of the factors in the film's success.

Gordon Gebert is quite natural and charming as little Chris. Gebert's roles also included playing Janet Leigh's son in HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949) and Jacqueline White's son in THE NARROW MARGIN (1952). Gebert was also in one of my favorite Joel McCrea movies, SADDLE TRAMP (1951); I haven't seen that one in years.

The movie received an Oscar nomination for Art and Set Direction. It was shot in black and white by Lucien Ballard and runs 93 minutes. The movie was based on the novel THE FRIGHTENED CHILD by Diana Lyon. Producer Robert Bassler also made THE LODGER (1944) and HANGOVER SQUARE (1945).

THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL was directed by the excellent craftsman Robert Wise, who worked successfully across all genres. Wise's other film of 1951 was the sci-fi classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Wise would go on to win Oscars for WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).

THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL is available on DVD as No. 15 in the Fox Film Noir series. (Curiously, the DVD box and posters all refer to the film simply as HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, but the title in the film's opening credits is clearly THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL.) The DVD is an excellent print; extras include a commentary by Eddie Muller. Muller is a San Francisco native so I anticipate his commentary should be particularly enjoyable.

The DVD can be rented from Netflix.

Recommended for fans of film noir and San Francisco.

2015 Update: Those interested in the film might be interested to read more about Gordon Gebert, who was interviewed at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival. He became a professor of architecture and credits filming on location in San Francisco as being part of what awakened his interest in buildings.

2017 Update: Here are a couple location photos of the house seen in the movie.


Blogger Marcin said...

"..Polish concentration camp.." !?!? - you must have been mistaken, please change it (e.g. "German concentration camp") immediatelly

1:13 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi, if you read the entire sentence, it says "Polish concentration camp prisoner." The entire phrase is meant to describe "prisoner," not "camp," but I can see where it could read ambiguously! I'll reword it slightly for clarity.

Thank you,

7:49 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Is it just me or is that Deborah Kerr on the DVD cover with Richard Basehart. I don't believe she's in the movie.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

It is a little bit of an odd illustration!

Best wishes,

7:41 PM  

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