Monday, November 30, 2015

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

*** out of 5

With its story of a refugee sneaking into America with stolen documents and identity and marrying into a wealthy family, one could imagine a very different film if this were a movie being made today.
Today, it might be more likely to be a political drama or terrorist thriller. Then, it played out more like a cross between Hitchcock's two films, Suspicion and Rebecca.

In this film, the refugee is played the beautiful Valentina Cortesa, as a Polish refugee, coming to who takes on identity and child of her dead friend to escape from the terrible conditions of her homeland after th desolation wrought by WWII. Her friend, it seems, had sent her infant son ahead of her to "Aunt Sophie," a wealthy American relative who can better protect him from the war, then spent much of the war is the same horrible camp as our protagonist, who tried desperately to keep her alive, but, seeing her gone, took understandable advantage of the opportunity that affords, finally arriving in the states in 1950.

There, she meets  Richard Basehart, a seemingly well-intentioned relative who had taken over custody of the child (Gordon Gebert)  after the death of Aunt Sophie.  The two see money in each other's eyes. and quickly marry and together take care of the boy- and the estate of the late Aunt Sophie.  Also in the house is Fay Baker, as Margaret, the housekeeper/nanny, who is unnaturally protective of the mother-role she as played for so long in the absence of the child's real mother.

As life continues, however, signs begin to indicate that there is something terribly wrong in this house.  as the tagline of the trailer states so luridly, "Shame is the mistress of this house, and betrayal is its master."  At first Cortesa thinks it is just her own guilty conscience that is causing her terror, keeping her awake at night, and giving her a feeling that the imposing portrait of Aunt Sophie in the dark living room is staring right into her soul, condemning her for pretending to be someone she's not.

But there's more at work here.  The cable sent to inform Cortesa that Aunt Sophie is dead comes 2 days before her death.  The playhouse in the yard is burnt out from an accident no one seems willing to talk about.  As Cortesa begins to investigate these mysterious clues, and ask questions, the danger to her life increases.  Brake lines are cut on her car, leading to a terrifying sequence as she coasts downhill out of control through the steep streets of San Francisco.

She finds the one person she can trust is William Lundigan, whose character was the same Major who she had presented the stolen papers to in order to get to America.  It seems he is also a sort of friend of family, but one who is not all that fond of Basehart, and his quest for wealth.  Her dependence on him adds tension to the final third of the film, as, having discovered the truth about this house, she is unable to escape it, or make contact with Lundigan for help, and must save herself and the child, or die in the attempt.

Despite certain story elements that test the believability of the film, such as the unlikely way in which the child's playhouse is situated halfway out over cliff, more like something from a lemony snicket novel than a realistic drama, the story is ultimately successful in creating an atmosphere of suspense and tension.  Basehart is very good in a difficult role that could easily have been overplayed as an arch villain, but is ultimately relatable in its human ambition while still frightening in the avarice of its greed.  Fay Baker plays her role with a nuanced performances that ranges from domineering to sympathetic, and Valentina Cortesa is excellent at communicating the complex emotions of a person who is simultaneously guilt-ridden, protective, frightened, and ultimately stronger than she realizes.

The climactic scene, involving a deadly glass of orange juice is pulled off with a masterful art and suspense by the case and composed with perfect precision by director Robert Wise for a riveting finale.

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