Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Noir of the Week #4: The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951)

The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951)

Frank Black
14 January 2015

This tightly-scripted gothic suspense thriller, based on the book 'The Frightened Child' by Dana Lyon, was directed by Robert Wise, the man often dismissed as the man who cut The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) behind Orson Welles’ back while the latter was on a jolly in South America. In reality, Wise was an accomplished director who worked successfully across number of genres and, it is fair to say, several of his films are now regarded as classics: West Side Story (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1954), for example.
Wise worked with Welles not only on The Magnificent Ambersons, but also on Citizen Kane (1941) (where he was nominated for an Oscar for editing), and for a studio, RKO, that seemed to encourage cinematic experimentation, such as the use of deep focus. He also worked for producer Val Lewton, noted for his psychological, expressionistic horror dramas and Wise would take and develop these motifs in his own work, particularly his horror and noir-based work – including his noir-Western, Blood on the Moon (1948), with quintessential noir-star, Robert Mitchum.
Wise’s touch, working in collaboration with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, is clear to see in The House on Telegraph Hill, a complex noir in which Victoria Kovelska (Valentina Cortese), a Polish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, takes on the identity of dead inmate Karin Dernakova. After the war, she heads to San Francisco to be reunited with ‘her’ son, Chris, who is too young to know any better, in the rather grand house on Telegraph Hill. Although she falls in love with and marries his guardian, Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), she perceives a sense of darkness about the place and, moreover, is haunted by the events of her past and the knowledge that she escaped what others couldn’t. Chris has inherited his aunt Sophie’s estate but there is tension in the air because his governess, Margaret (Fay Baker), attached, Mrs Danvers-like, to her former employer, is in love with Alan too.
Initially, with her adoption of Karin’s identity and her deception of Chris and Alan, the film seems to be setting up Victoria, haunted by her past, as the femme fatale, but in a reversal of the gender roles and with shades of Gaslight (and I prefer the 1940 Thorold Dickinson version, if you’re asking), Alan is the duplicitous character, determined to do away with Victoria and Chris to inherit the money and property for himself. Desperate for help, Victoria turns to Marc Bennett (William Lundigan), a lawyer friend of Alan’s who had met her while serving in the war and who clearly has a thing for her, but in the end, after discovering that Alan killed Sophia, she outsmarts him all by herself in a tense scene that alludes somewhat to Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) and Peter Godfrey’s The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947).
There is some startlingly effective use of location shooting and studio work, with several scenes sticking in the mind, not least the opening: a flashback to a concentration camp shortly juxtaposed with the image of the titular house for sale, while we hear Victoria’s grieving narration about her relationship with Karin and the story of her son.  Another scene in which Wise excels with his stylised visuals occurs when Victoria encounters Alan while she explores the eerie ruins of Chris’ playhouse, which has been damaged by an explosion. She is so afraid that she almost falls to her death through a hole in the floor. In his filming of Victoria in the runaway car down Telegraph Hill Boulevard and Lombard Street West, the director seems to be looking forward to Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968) – indeed, when the car rounds the corner from Chestnut into Leavenworth, it is foreshadowing Steve McQueen’s exact move by seventeen years.

Most of us remember Richard Basehart hurling himself from one side of the set to the other as the admiral in Irwin Allen’s 1960s science fiction television series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; in fact, though most of his films were hardly classics, he had a rich and varied film career inlcuding Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) and Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). He was not first choice to play Alan – Dana Andrews, James Mason and Richard Conte had all been considered – but he is convincing in the role. A much undervalued actor, he had played other edgy characters such as the killer in Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann’s superb thriller, He Walked by Night (1948) and the man on the ledge in Henry Hathaway’s Fourteen Hours, released only two months earlier than The House on Telegraph Hill. He married his co-star Cortese later that year.

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