Friday, July 2, 2010

The House on Telegraph Hill: A Glass of Orange Juice Before Bed

Two women, Victoria (Valentina Cortese) and Karin, become friends in a concentration camp during World War II. Karin, who is frail, talks about her son, whom she sent to America at the outbreak of the war to live with a wealthy aunt. Karin's dream is to be reunited with her son. But, despite Victoria's efforts to keep her friend alive, Karin dies on a cold winter night. Victoria--who has lost her entire family during the war--makes a sudden, fateful decision: She takes Karin's papers and assumes the dead woman's identity.

When Poland is liberated, Karin (the former Victoria) writes a letter to “her” Aunt Sophie in the States. A few weeks later, she receives a telegram from a lawyer informing her that Aunt Sophie is dead. Five years pass before Karin can travel on her own to America. When she arrives in New York City, she demands custody of “her” nine-year-old son Christopher. She anticipates a legal battle, so she is surprised when the boy’s guardian, Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), decides to be reasonable.

A whirlwind courtship ensues, with Karin and Alan getting married within two weeks of their first meeting. All seems to be going well until the newlyweds arrive in San Francisco to live with Christopher in the family mansion on Telegraph Hill. Karin and young Christopher hit it off immediately, but Karin quickly senses that she is not welcomed by Margaret, the boy’s attractive governess. Furthermore, Alan has begun to act strangely towards her…and then there’s the old playhouse in the backyard where that explosion took place.

The House on Telegraph House shares more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, except with a twist. Karin may or may not be married to a murderer, but there is no doubt that she is deceiving those around her. At the core of her deception, she is lying to a young boy and allowing him to believe she is his presumed-dead mother. To be sure, Karin exudes guilt—there are several shots of her staring remorsefully at Aunt Sophie’s portrait. Still, she never tries to remove herself from the situation by telling the truth about her identity. Her apparent reason for doing this is because she has grown to love Christopher…and yet, she is only prolonging the hurt that she may cause him in later life.

The complexity of Karin’s motives makes it a tricky leading role and Valentina Cortese pulls it off fairly well. She excels in scenes such as the one where Karin meets Christopher for the first time—her subtle fear a result of wondering if the boy will somehow sense she is not his mother. Still, Cortese lacks warmth overall, making it difficult for the audience to totally pull for her in a way they might have for a more engaging actress, such as Ingrid Bergman.

Daryl F. Zanuck “discovered” Valentina Cortese in Italy in the early 1950s (she was already appearing in films) and brought her to America in hopes of making her a star. She never connected with American audiences, though, and returned to Europe in 1955. She enjoyed a long acting career there, working with acclaimed directors such as Fellini, Antonioni, and Truffaut. Cortese earned an Oscar nomination in 1973 for Best Supporting Actress for Truffaut’s Day for Night; she lost in that category to Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express.

Cortese married her House on Telegraph Hill co-star Richard Basehart in 1951 (they divorced nine years later). Basehart wasn’t the first choice for the role of Alan Spender; Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, and James Mason were among those actors also considered for the part. Basehart was always a solid performer and he’s quite convincing as a murky character that may have ulterior motives. Without giving away any plot spoilers, I will say this: I will never accept an offer of a glass of orange juice before bed.

The ever-versatile Robert Wise directed The House on Telegraph Hill the same year he did The Day the Earth Stood Still. The former film isn’t a beloved classic like the latter one, but The House on Telegraph Hill hold ups nicely today and remains engrossing from start to finish. The title house, by the way, doesn’t really exist—but you can visit the top of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.

12 comments:

  1. Very interesting blog, Rick, about a film I have never heard of. I am a big Richard Basehart fan, and love Robert Wise as an editor and director. Wise did such incredible work on exceptional movies. I'd like to see this one. I can see this month is really going to be fun and informative with each member telling us about movies not well known. Sometimes those are the best!

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  2. Rick, never seen this, but I see it in the "H" section of TIVO a lot so it must play often. Since I watch a lot of foreign films (I often dream that I am a Deneuve/Truffaut lovechild, who gets free Yves Saint-Laurent's clothes and insane letters from Godard asking for money) I have seen a lot of Valentina Cortese's work. I might have to check this out and see if her acting is restrained by speaking English, which sometimes can be the case for usually good actors.

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  3. Rick, I haven't seen the film (tho I have been to Telegraph Hill and understand why anyone would want to live in a mansion there) but am now intrigued thanks to your post. Will keep an eye out for it. Kim, I don't quite share your dream, but it's close - in mine I am Deneuve, live in Paris, have a closet full of free YSL couture and memories of Mastrioanni, Vadim, etc.
    (that delete was due to posting before completing a sentence)

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  4. This is an intriguing B-film. I thought Ms. Cortese was quite good. I love the scene where she's backing up to the back of the playhouse and is about to fall to her death through the blown out floor.

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  5. Eve, I might add that in my dream I am the doppelganger of my fictional mama, say Belle de Jour period. Truffaut is papa only because he was a genius--so I am not only stunningly beautiful but intelligent as well. Paris, of course, is a given.

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  6. Kim, in the commentary on HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, film historian Eddie Muller notes that Valentina Cortese struggled with learning English for the movie. That, no doubt, had some impact on her performance.

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  7. I liked this movie and especially enjoyed the setting. The house seems to be filled with secrets. There is a scene where the husband sleeps apart from his new wife on their first night home and the wife sees the governess exiting his room.

    The playhouse is horrifying with its huge, dangerous hole. That gives the viewer a very big clue that something is definitely not right.

    I really enjoyed your review, Rick, of a fun, lesser known film. Fresh squeezed OJ, anyone?

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  8. No, Toto, no orange juice for me! But you and Milton are right about that potentially deadly hole in the back of the playhouse. Becky, I can't think of a director more versatile than Robert Wise. Eve, I'm jealous that you've seen the real Telegraph Hill (the house in the film looks very real).

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  9. Rick, Another movie I have not seen. HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, sounds like a very complex movie.. One I really think I would enjoy seeing.

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  10. Just watching right now on Turner Classic Movies -- it is VERY THRILLING AND SUSPENSEFUL. I THOUGHT I WAS WATCHING A HITCHCOCK MOVIE.

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  11. Hey Anon..me,too and was chillingly delighted...I think Cortese does strike the right chord as post war bride from Poland who would be struggling with English..Basehart is quite good as I have not seen him as a villain before...William Lundigan was servicable as the suave, rich guy who you knew from the beginning was going to be a special friend to our emigre...solid film..ending slightly off but I blame that on the script..nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable..not quite SUSPICION, but highly satisfying...miss the beginning so I am going to see if I can catch it on line..Cheers!

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  12. I actually believe this movie works well with Valentina Cortese in it. She kept me intrigued throughout the film and I love her accent. It's one of my all-time favorites. Valentina adds a mystique to the film. I never understood why Valentina did not become more famous in the USA. My only guess is more likely not enough "Hollywood movie star" predictable looks. She was a great actress. As to Basehart's role, I would have preferred to see Dana Andrews in it. I think Ingrid Bergman would have been too predictable and commercial for this role.

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