House of Strangers (1949) Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Fox Film Noir DVD – interlibrary loan
“Always looking for a new way to get hurt from a new man. Get smart. There hasn’t been a new man since Adam.”
House of Strangers may be more Italian family drama than noir, but man, what a family drama… Edward G. Robinson is a Lower East Side banker named Gino Monetti who has four sons, three of whom he has badgered and verbally abused all their lives. Eldest son Joe (Luther Adler, below left), would-be boxer Pietro (Paul Valentine, seated), and Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., center) all hate their father so much that when Gino stands trial for corruption practices in banking, only Gino’s lawyer son Max (Richard Conte) stands in his corner. But there’s a price – a big one – that Max pays for his loyalty.
All of this is told as one long flashback once Max returns to see his brothers after spending seven years in prison. He’s bitter, biting and abrasive, and until the flashback starts, we aren’t sure why. We learn about the entire family, but mostly about Gino and Max: Gino as a father (an awful one) and Max as he becomes romantically involved with Irene (Susan Hayward), one of his clients, despite the fact that he’s engaged to a nice Italian girl named Maria (Debra Paget).
The film is filled with smart dialogue, especially between Richard Conte and Susan Hayward and the two have a dangerous current of electricity going throughout the film. (The opening line of this review is just one example of their verbal exchanges.) Their story is compelling enough, but watching Robinson is always a treat and here is just another showcase from one of the great (and still largely unsung) actors of 20th century American films. Robinson commands every scene he’s in as Gino commands everyone in his family, disregarding the consequences of his business and family decisions.
There are few sympathetic characters and fewer bright futures for anyone in this film, thus earning its film noir status despite the scales coming down heavily on the family drama side of the scales. There’s a scene late in the film where Max looks at Joe with intense hatred. I’m not sure what the gesture means (maybe it’s something from Italian culture), but Max places part of his fist in his mouth and violently yanks it down in Joe’s direction. It’s an entirely wordless moment, but it couldn’t have contained more venom if Max had thrown a cobra at Joe.
The French company ESC recently released a Region B Blu-ray of the film. As far as I know, this is the only Blu-ray edition available. Let’s hope we see a Region A Blu-ray of the film soon. It certainly deserves one.
Photos: imdb, Movie Mine, Rare Film