Wednesday, January 17, 2007

HOUSE OF STRANGERS (20th Century Fox 1949) Fox Home Video

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s House of Strangers (1949) is a compelling, literate and engaging family melodrama, hampered by the infusion of an implausible love story, and Fox Home Video’s more recent attempt to curiously mislabel the movie as a film noir. It stars Edward G. Robinson as Gino Monetti, an Italian patriarch whose overbearing control and slight mistrust of three of his four sons leads to familial discourse and murderous betrayal.

Gino’s eldest son, Joe (Luther Adler) is a bitter man made insecure by his father’s lack of faith in him to handle anything but a teller's status inside the family’s banking business. Son Pietro (Paul Valentine) is a would-be fisticuffs champion whom Gino refers to as ‘dumb head’ and whose backing is stripped away by Gino after he loses a middle weight bout. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is a man lacking conviction in anything and thereby labeled a weakling by his domineering father. Only the youngest son, attorney at law Max (Richard Conte) meets with Gino's approval. The others, desperate for their share of respect and, more to the point, the family’s wealth, turn to Max as their intermediary.

But the story shifts its focus to a burgeoning romance between Max and tough-talking gal about town, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward). Seems Max, who is already engaged to Maria Domenico (Debra Paget) hates Irene so much he falls in love with her. The two become lovers while Maria’s mama, Helena (Hope Emerson) puts two and two together and decides that her daughter and Max will never marry. Maria eventually weds Tony instead.

Before any of these plot points can be fully developed, Gino is involved in a bank scandal that threatens to put him in prison for life. Max assumes responsibility for the fiasco and goes to prison in his brother's stead for seven long years. In the interim, Gino dies and the brothers assume control of the family business.

When Max gets out he finds that Joe is not content to merely have risen to the top of the familial hierarchy. Instead, Joe instructs Pietro to beat the tar out of Max and then toss him off the second story of the family’s home. But Pietro recoils at the last minute and attempts instead to murder Joe. Max thwarts this from happening. 

House of Strangers is a family melodrama about the immigrant experience gone bad. It struggles to convey its message: that a strong-willed patriarch can ruin his sons' futures. Yet, quite the opposite is true. Gino is not a Mafia chieftain but a benevolent, if slightly misguided patriarch who has always had his family’s best interests at heart. He is deposed not by his own misgivings or even wrong doings, but by the greed and avarice of his motley brood (except for Max, who never wanes in his affections for his father). 

There is also something quite unsettling about the character of Irene who starts off as the story's resident trollop, then inexplicably transforms herself into a loyal and loving companion for Max after he gets out of prison. Overall, House of Strangers is not a great film – but it is definitely worth a second glance on DVD.

Regrettably, the B&W image is softly focused and suffers from a generally thick characteristic. Blacks are dull and muted gray. Whites are generally not very clean or bright. There’s a considerable amount of dirt, scratches and some very obtrusive film grain present, as well as minor edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Overall, not a very competent effort. The audio has been re-channeled to stereo; a wasted effort. Extras include an informative audio commentary, stills gallery and theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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