Vintage film noir is riddled with some of the most fanciful crimes ever concocted – either real or imagined. Case in point: Robert Wise’s superior, though largely overlooked The House on Telegraph Hill (1951); a B-grade mystery sold with A-list trappings and a remarkably well cast ensemble that most today have probably never even heard of – or have, but don’t exactly recall where. For starters there is Valentina Cortese; an Italian import predating the mid-50s invasion of such iconic sexpots as Gina Lolobrigida and Sophia Loren. Cortese was a discovery of Darryl F. Zanuck and a marvelous one at that; an intuitive star who had to learn her lines phonetically because she barely spoke English. And yet her English in the movie is very well spoken indeed – with an accent – but then again, this lends an air of culture to her already formidable charm. And Cortese has charm plus; an infectious and largely intangible ‘something extra’ that cannot be bought, marketed or manufactured…and believe me, there have been producers who have tried. But we’ll leave Zanuck’s raptness for the exotic, though indigestible, Bella Darvi for another review.
Zanuck, ever-possessing ambitions to be a star maker on par with Louis B. Mayer – though arguably never quite attaining such status – had hoped that Valentina Cortese would become the next Garbo – lofty aspirations indeed – and regrettably never to materialize. And yet in The House of Telegraph Hill Cortese gives every indication that super stardom is just around the corner, sumptuously sheathed in costumes by Charles Le Maire and Renié. Far from a clothes horse, Cortese also proves she could feel her way around a scene, however improbable, and in a foreign language (English being foreign to Cortese).
Born in Milan, Cortese’s movie career was over almost before it started; depriving North American audiences of a talent that so obviously had a lot more to give. After 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa, for which she played second fiddle to ravishing Ava Gardner, Cortese effectively retired from Hollywood, though not from movies. In fact, her career abroad was startlingly prolific. She resurfaced briefly in the mid-1970s in American movies but to limited effect in mostly supporting roles. She was also Oscar-nominated in 1975, losing to Ingrid Bergman who, upon taking the stage, acknowledged that the statuette ought to have gone to Cortese instead.
In The House of Telegraph Hill Valentina Cortese not only has to grapple with her newly landed immigrant status – played up in the movie and perhaps mirrored in real life – but she also has to deal with the conventions of film noir and carry the weight of the narrative by the second act. Cortese proves more than equal to the task. Take, for example, the moment her ill-fated alter ego, benevolent con artist, Victoria Kowelska (a.k.a Karin Dernakova) decides to go probing for clues where earlier an explosion from a failed chemistry experiment has blown a rather titanic hole out the backside of a child’s playhouse – itself built precariously on the edge of a deceptively steep ravine. Cortese skulks about with genuine inquisitiveness; her eyes carefully tracing the contours of the blast, an assortment of thoughts going on behind that stare. The depth of understanding is all there in the eyes, generating a spark of genuine fear and foreboding and…well…something more enterprising and mysterious. Cortese has it – in spades – and knows precisely when and how to use it to her advantage.
Then there’s Richard Basehart – the man with diabolical intentions. These clearly did not extend to the friendship blossoming behind the scenes. For Cortese marries Basehart, both in the film and in real life – neither satisfactorily. Basehart is another sadly underrated actor almost entirely lost in the shuffle of the greats; the girth of his talent mostly relegated to inferior roles in forgettable movies. Apart from 1951’s Fourteen Hours, in which he plays an unstable man about to leap to his death from a tall building, and 1958’s The Brothers Karamazov, where he is the personification of slyness and cunning, The House on Telegraph Hill remains something of the only showcase for Basehart’s genuine gifts; running the gamut of emotions and elevating our collective dread into a fine art as Alan Spender - the villain of the piece, though equally as charming as he proves provocative and, in fact, perversely chilling in the last act.
There’s also Fay Baker – again, a name most have probably never known; as the wicked temptress, Margaret, whose plotting is perhaps even more soulless that Alan’s. Yet Baker resists the urge to become a stock cliché, the proverbial ‘bad woman’ with an most queerly compassionate center, or perhaps merely able to pluck out a need for self-preservation from this unraveling quagmire. Finally, comes William Lundigan as Maj. Mark Bennett, playing his stock and trade ‘good guy’ that fit his persona so well, but herein seeming to suggest a more doomed complacency; a man unable to be devious yet curiously powerless to prevent the proliferation of doom all around him.
No, The House of Telegraph Hill is exceptionally well cast – its main characters realized cleverly, avoiding hyperbole and stock repetition of traits we have vaguely seen elsewhere in the canon of film noir. Let us also pay homage to the excellent screenplay by Elick Moll and Frank Partos; the pair cribbing from a best-seller by Dana Lyon; their tightly woven narrative threads ever anteing up the suspense. Then there is the exquisitely stark B&W cinematography of Lucien Ballard that manages to create a weirdly oppressive atmosphere out of the mostly sunny backdrop of San Francisco. Most people are generally disappointed to learn that the house on Telegraph Hill doesn’t exist; the property as depicted in the movie a series of matte paintings married to full scale sets built on the Fox back lot, with location work in and around Telegraph Hill convincingly concocting the mythology for the movie.
In some ways, The House on Telegraph Hill falls into the Gothic ‘dark old house’ thriller genre; its imposing glamour from a bygone era at odds with the insecurities of our heroine – herself a con-artist impersonating a dead woman whose identity she has stolen while suffering unspeakable horrors in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. Our story begins in Poland with Cortese’s Victoria Kowalska befriending fellow inmate Karin Dernakova (Natasha Lytess). Karin is weak and malnourished. Victoria brings her food and comfort, encouraging her to remain positive throughout their ordeal. There are script annotations in the Fox vaults to suggest this sequence ought to have been far more extensive than it actually is in the final cut; Zanuck once entertaining the notion of a minor epic that would have resulted in a much longer movie. For one reason or another, these plans never materialized and probably just as well. What’s in the film is tightly scripted and sufficient to convey the emotionally conflicted core of our heroine.
From Karin we learn her family was wealthy before the war, that at the beginning of the conflict her husband went off to fight and was killed and that she sent her then infant son, Christopher (Gordon Gebert) to live with a wealthy aunt in America. Sadly, a reunion is not to be. Karin succumbs to abject starvation and dies on a cold dirt floor on the eve of the Armistice. Karin was Victoria’s last hope to come to America after the war. Since there is no one to vouch otherwise, and in a moment of weakness, Victoria steals Karin’s identity. She lies to liberating American, Major Mark Bennett and is permitted to write Karin’s aunt from the liberation camp in the hopes she will send for her.
Just how Victoria hopes to fool an old woman who most likely would have remembered what her real niece looked like before the war is beyond the scope of understanding in this screenplay. But we quickly discover the aunt has since died – presumably of natural causes – leaving the entire estate in trust to Christopher, to be managed by her trusted advisor, Alan Spender. It is Alan who sends for Karin – unaware that the woman who arrives on Frisco’s sunny shores is not who she claims to be. Having never met Karin before, Alan takes Victoria at face value and introduces her to Christopher and Margaret, the boy’s nanny. The mood is palpably reserved at the depot, Victoria genuinely affected by her first sight of the child who, never having known his real mother, now believes Victoria to be it. A bond quickly develops between Chris and Victoria. Meanwhile, Alan introduces Victoria (a.k.a. Karin) to the lavish lifestyle befitting a socialite of her inheritance. It seems that the real Karin’s aunt left a provision in her will; the estate going to Karin should she survive the war and thus to be jointly administered to both her and Christopher.
It is a bitter pill for Alan to swallow since he had hoped to manage the estate to his own liking. What follows is even more upsetting to Margaret whom we soon discover is Alan’s mistress and his partner in a more ominous criminal enterprise. Perhaps Karin’s aunt did not die of natural causes. This suspicion grows after Victoria is shown the playhouse by Chris while the two are out practicing a game of catch. It seems that a chemistry experiment gone wrong destroyed most of its interior and left a gaping hole in the floor, revealing a steep ravine just beyond. Had Chris been inside at the time of the explosion he surely would not have survive it.
To quell Victoria’s concerns, Alan puts on a good show; lavishing her with sumptuous gowns, throwing gala dinner parties and taking her out on the town; eventually proposing marriage. Maj. Bennett resurfaces; convinced that Victoria is not who she seems. But his fascination to get to the truth is discarded when he too becomes smitten with Victoria, recognizing what an excellent mother (or rather, mother figure) she is to Chris. Victoria befriends Mark; their friendship hardly romantic though he considers himself as her protector. In fact, she trusts Mark as a very good friend. But Victoria also has begun to harbor a genuine fear that Alan is up to something diabolical. After surviving a near-death accident in her automobile – the brake lines having been deliberately severed – Victoria begins to skulk around the house on Telegraph Hill for clues into the more recent past. She is repeatedly deferred from her investigation by Margaret who perhaps has begun to have cold feet about the plan she once shared with Alan – to do away with Chris and thus inherit the vast estate and monies for themselves.
Alan has no such attack of conscience, however. In a page ripped straight out of Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), Alan pours a pair of glasses of orange juice, tainting one with a particularly nasty poison before taking them both up to Victoria’s bedroom to calm her nerves. Victoria is not so easily fooled and manages to switch the glasses when Alan is not looking. After the pair has consumed their drinks Alan confesses to Victoria his crimes; his wicked indulgence and pleasure derived from observing as panic enters her eyes suddenly turned into frustration when the effects of the poison begin to affect him instead. Struggling to breath, Alan begs for mercy and help.
Although Victoria compassionately races to Margaret’s bedroom in the hopes that she will know what to do, Margaret instead tells Victoria to take Chris and hurry away for the police; before disconnecting the phone so that Alan will be unable to call for help. He dies a coward’s death, Margaret looking on with perplexed satisfaction. In the final moments Victoria is reunited with Mark; confiding the truth about her identity to him alone, which doesn’t seem to matter much now; the pair leaving Telegraph Hill with Chris and all of the unpleasantness left behind to be shuddered in the dark old house for good.
The House on Telegraph Hill is exceptionally well-crafted melodrama with light touches of the Gothic thriller factored in. Robert Wise exploits the towering sets constructed by John DeCuir to menacing effect, blending the fabricated with a travelogue of the Frisco/Bay area. 2oth Century-Fox was one of the first studios to embrace extensive location shooting, beginning as early as 1942. The House on Telegraph Hill benefits immensely from these locations. They are as much a character in the film as any flesh and blood counterpart. But it’s the principles that really sell the story as something more malicious and yet utterly delicious; an ever-constricting delirium leading up to murder most foul. The implausibility of the plot: a killer marrying to inherit a family fortune when he could so easily have an ‘accident’ befall Victoria before anyone is any the wiser is, at least on the surface, utterly absurd. Yet, within the context of the movie it remains wholly believable.
There is a definite onscreen chemistry between Richard Basehart and the two women who occupy the mansion; extraordinary since one is devilish schemer, more profoundly and morally bankrupt than perhaps even he, while the other is presumably the lost innocent caught in a maelstrom she knows absolutely nothing about. Basehart’s ability to toggle between these polar opposites, and in fact, convincingly portray him character as favoring both ends of the spectrum is quite remarkable. Until the penultimate poisoning we’re never quite certain whether Alan Spender will wind up with Victoria or Margaret; sacrificing one for the other or perhaps even both in his psychopathic quest for riches untold. This leaves William Lundigan in the mostly thankless part of our hero – hardly heroic, yet strangely comforting nonetheless; sympathetic actually to Victoria’s plight and her supposition that her worst nightmares have begun to come true. As a rule and a movement, film noir is not readily acknowledged for the depth of its characters, but rather introducing instantly identifiable stock characters (the gumshoe, the femme fatale) at the beginning and then running through the machinations of its situation-driven plots.
Yet none of the characters that populate The House on Telegraph Hill are as clear cut or as one dimensional as one might expect. Victoria – a.k.a. Karin – is arguably ‘the good girl’ – yet hardly an innocent. She is a deceiver; having assuaged into a life that does not belong to her, arguably out of the same greedy intentions that propel Alan to conspire with Margaret to commit murder. Margaret is the presumed femme fatale. Yet she does not goad Alan into committing his crimes but acts as a co-conspirator and one who ultimately cannot go through with the deception as planned. And even Alan, as malevolent as he is, reverts to the fearful beggary of a wounded child in the last act; the miscalculation that leads to his own death making him realize far too late what a fool’s errand he has been on since marrying Victoria.
No, The House on Telegraph Hill provides the viewer with complex characters – a commodity arguably not on display in ‘classic’ film noir. Robert Wise’s direction is masterfully paced, affording the audience just enough time to mirror Victoria’s suspicions while retaining a very hesitant sense of foreboding throughout. In the final analysis, The House on Telegraph Hill is a great mystery/thriller – full of consequence and redemption expertly played by a perfect cast. It belongs on everyone’s must see list.
Inexplicably, Fox Home Video's cover art has knocked off 'The' from the film's title even though the actual film main title card includes it. The cover art also illustrates a turreted façade of a house not depicted in the movie. The DVD transfer is not without its shortcomings. Thankfully, these are mostly minimal and distilled into several brief, though glaring examples of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. For the rest, the B&W image exhibits a solidly rendered gray scale with excellent tonality. The image is mostly sharp with fine detail impressively rendered. Film grain has been adequately reproduced, though on brief occasions can adopt a digitized appearance. It’s not all that distracting except when viewed on larger monitors. The print also contains some minor dirt and scratches that ought to have been cleaned up. The audio has been re-channeled to faux stereo with the original mono mix also included and much preferred. Extras are limited to a very satisfying audio commentary by film noir aficionado and historian Eddie Muller, some production stills and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: The House on Telegraph Hill is a good solid story told with exemplary visual flair – a must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)