Robert Wise’s 1951 noir “The House on Telegraph Hill”

The  Fox Noir release of the 1951 movie “The House of Telegraph Hill” had multiple appeals to me. First off, the Fox Noir series has been characterized by excellent restorations and interesting commentary tracks. Second, much of the movie was filmed on location in San Francisco and I like to see how the city looked decades before I ever saw it. Third, I think that Robert Wise is an undervalued master director (despite—or because of?—having won best directing Oscars for the two big-budget musicals he directed). Fourth, the cinematographer was another (and widely recognized master), Lucien Ballard. And it starred (indeed was designed for) Valentina Cortese, whose Hollywood debut (in a Fox noir directed by Jules Dassin”, Thieves’ Highway”) impressed me, and Richard Basehart, who was electrifying in “He Walked By Night “and great in Fellini’s “La Strada” before settling into the role of Admiral Harriman Nelson on tv’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” which I watched regularly at least through its first season (1964-65).

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Although my expectations were too high and otherwise somewhat mistaken, there was much to savor on the DVD (including the movie). As (San Francisco-native) Eddie Muller notes at the start of his interesting and informative commentary track, “The House of Telegraph Hill” is less a film noir than what he calls the genre of “a woman in jeopardy” (Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and “Suspicion” and Cukor’s “Gaslight” were difficult not to think of while watching the movie; other earlier examples of the genre include, The Spiral Staircase, Night Must Fall, Sorry Wrong Number, Kind Lady, Under Capricorn, and many more). It also owes much the tradition of Gothic fiction (Jane Eyre, and, again, Rebecca).

The initial menace to the character portrayed by Cortesa is the Nazi concentration camp in which she is interred (Belsen, I think), having lost her home and husband and freedom. There is a whole lot of plot, and the plotting by the main two characters is intensely self-serving — which is fittingly noirish, though the other two leading characters are not self-serving, which is confusing in the noir universe, but occurs in Gothic romances.

For reasons far too complicated to get into here, Cortesa’s character becomes Mrs. Alan Spender. Mr. Alan Spender is portrayed (brilliantly!) by Richard Basehart, who could turn from sympathetic to menacing and back again on less than a dime (a penny?). Through most of the movie, the viewer is not certain whether he is solicitous toward his wife because he is concerned about her “nerves” or monitoring to make sure he doesn’t discover whatever Dark Truth there may be. Although she seems to have surprisingly little post-traumatic stress disorder (and no evidence of survivor guilt), she is tormented by guilt and by uncertainty about her husband.

He serves her orange juice instead of milk, as Cary Grant served Joan Fontaine in “Suspicion.” Californians (especially transplants) feel that fresh-squeezed orange juice every day is one of our prerogatives, but a big glass right before going to sleep? Milk is more common for that, I think.

That is a minor implausibility. There are other plot points that require a strong will to suspend disbelief, particularly that the US Army major who processed her papers in Poland, is a prosperous San Francisco lawyer, who becomes the third point of one triangle (one of two triangles, or is it a double triangle with the boy and three adults in that Gothic mansion high on Telegraph Hill?).

The house is a major character with very opulent interiors. From the commentary track, I learned that its Victorian facade was installed after the restaurant (Julius’s Castle, at the corner of Montgomery and Greenwich streets) closed on Sunday night, and all the exteriors were filmed before it reopened Tuesday. (Surprisingly, the major Telegraph Hill landmark, which is very nearby, Coit Tower, is never shown in the movie.)

The backdrops—and the car plunging out of control—were filmed on location. There is a scene of Market at Montgomery ca. 1950 and scenes with one or another bridge in the background. Like the chase scene in “Bullit,” the brakeless car scene was shot on location, but makes no geographic sense. (Much of the chase scene of “Bullit” was shot on the hill where I live, but lurched onto other hills in the city.) Scenes of the car going in both directions on Union Street are included (it ends on a cul-de-sac on Montgomery and Montague Place).

I wasn’t disappointed by the glimpses of San Francisco of another era, and I wasn’t disappointed by Lucien Ballard’s cinematography. I’ve already categorized Richard Basehart’s mercurial mood shifts as “brilliant.” Cortesa (whom Muller says had too much style for Hollywood to handle) had a very interesting face. It also has to register many moods, sometimes conflicting ones simultaneously. Although she was having major problems with English, she sounds like a rapidly acculturating refugee. And, as head of Fox Studios Darryl Zanuck was seeking to build her into being a star, she had a very extensive and glamorous wardrobe (especially in contrast with “Thieves’ Highway” in which she had no change of clothes). The studio went all out in set direction and art direction, too (netting an Oscar nomination; that of the winner, “Streetcar Named Desire” is much less impressive, and it’s a puzzlement that the costume design didn’t even get nominated).

The all-American boy was played with open-faced perfection by Gordon Gebert (most memorable in a real noir from the next year, “The Narrow Margin”). Fay Baker was excellent as the governess (less flamboyant than Judith Anderson in “Rebecca,” keeping the audience guessing about what she knows and feels). As a friend who is obviously in love with her, I agree with Fuller that Richard Lundigan was too bland (like Joseph Cotten in “Gaslight,” more a plot device than a character).

I do not agree with him that Lundigan and Basehart look too much alike. They don’t look very alike to me even if one ignores that Lundigan was noticeably taller or that Lundigan was underplaying (not that Basehart was a raving maniac, something he was certainly capable of portraying).

The story of Basehart and Cortesa hiding their romance, even after the movie, secretly marrying, and Basehart abandoning Hollywood to be with her Italy makes for an interesting story—and Fuller’s commentary track is racier than a 1951 Hollywood movie could be. (He explains several demands by the censors, including one about the anticlimax—which I thought stimulated some creativity on the part of the movie-makers.) Cortesa had three near-death experiences in the early-1950s (an acute appendicitis, a car crash, and peritonitis), and lived to the age of 96, dying in June 2019).

I’d have preferred a more obsessive, more noirish film. The opening concentration camp scenes seem tame (but may not have to 1951 audiences protected from too much reality making it to the screens), and the elaborate plot takes some hard swallowing, but there is much solid craftsmanship and stars who are interesting to look at.

In addition to Muller’s sometimes vulgar, very opinionated, but never dull commentary track, the DVD has a gallery of posters and stills, and the theatrical trailer. The trailer includes major plot-spoilers, and should not be viewed first.

 

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

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