Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tonight's Movie: House of Strangers (1949)

HOUSE OF STRANGERS is an excellent drama about a dysfunctional Italian-American family, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) is a New York banker who only seems to respect one of his four sons: Max (Richard Conte), a self-confident attorney. Gino treats his other sons (Luther Adler, Paul Valentine, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), who all work for him and are timid "yes" men, with varying degrees of contempt.

Max is engaged to a sweet Italian girl, Maria (Debra Paget), while simultaneously carrying on a torrid affair with Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward). Irene wants to marry Max herself, but the entire family is upended when federal officials shut down Gino's bank and he goes on trial for mismanagement.

This is a well-made and absorbing film directed with Mankiewicz's usual polish; it immediately followed A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949) and preceded NO WAY OUT (1950) with Richard Widmark. The entire cast is good, with particular kudos going to Robinson, Conte, and Hayward. Robinson is always interesting, though his character here is far from sympathetic, and I found him quite believable as an Italian immigrant.

Richard Conte had previously appeared in one of Mankiewicz's first directorial efforts, SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946), and he's terrific. Both Conte and Susan Hayward have charisma to spare, and the film is at its most interesting when they're on screen together. It bears noting that a couple of their scenes are highly suggestive for the Code era -- yet at the same time the implications would sail right over the heads of younger viewers. It's a great example of how a film could have both steam and class.

I also particularly enjoyed pretty young Debra Paget as a girl with spunk underneath her demure exterior. I would have enjoyed seeing another scene or two between Paget and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., developing the relationship hinted at in a terrific dinner sequence with the entire family. Maria's mother is played by Hope Emerson, who looks the part of a formidable Italian mama but sure doesn't sound like one.

HOUSE OF STRANGERS was Efrem Zimbalist Jr.'s first film role. He's now 92. A couple of years ago his daughter Stephanie's site posted some wonderful photos of his 90th birthday celebration, with attendees including James Garner, Jane Russell, and Rhonda Fleming, among others; in a 2008 Films of the Golden Age interview, Fleming called Zimbalist a "beautiful man." I've experienced Zimbalist's courtesy myself, both meeting him in person and receiving a personal handwritten response to a fan letter a number of years ago. A few years ago Zimbalist published an autobiography, MY DINNER OF HERBS.

Diana Douglas, who plays the petulant wife of Joe (Adler), was the first wife of Kirk Douglas and is the mother of Michael. She's acted as recently as a 2008 episode of E.R.

The Philip Yordan screenplay for HOUSE OF STRANGERS is based on a novel by Jerome Weidman, I'LL NEVER GO THERE ANYMORE. Director Mankiewicz is said to have done some uncredited work on the script.

BROKEN LANCE (1954), starring Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark, is said to be a loose remake of HOUSE OF STRANGERS, but I couldn't really see much similarity, other than the theme of a somewhat nasty patriarch and squabbling sons.

The black and white cinematography was by Milton Krasner. The film runs 101 minutes.

HOUSE OF STRANGERS has been released on DVD as No. 17 in the Fox Film Noir Series. (I found this film one of the less "noirish" titles in the series; it's more of a family drama.) Extras include a commentary track by Foster Hirsch.

It's also had a release on video.

HOUSE OF STRANGERS can also be seen regularly on Fox Movie Channel.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

"House of Strangers" is one of my favourites from Mankiewicz. Actually, I feel that way about most of his films, but I'm sincere.

The palpable tension among the characters is fascinating and, as you noted, the performances are top-notch.

4:23 AM  
Blogger JavaBeanRush said...

I've only recently seen this film for the first time [summer 2011] and it encourages me to watch more Hayward films. Frankly I thought she only did women's prison stories or the like.

Have you posted the Zimbalist letter on your site? I become of fan of his from his work on "Remington Steele."

6:24 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Java! I very much recommend trying Hayward in I'D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN (1951) or THE PRESIDENT'S LADY (1953).

I haven't posted the Zimbalist letter on my site yet, but I have scanned some of it and may post it in the future. :) What a wonderful man he is!

Best wishes,

8:34 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

One of my favorites and a great part for Richard Conte.
There's another film called THE BIG SHOW(1961) with the same plot though set in a circus . Cliff Robertson plays the son who goes to jail and Esther Williams in the Susan Hayward role.
As we know Hollywood had no problem recycling scripts over the years.

1:10 AM  

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