June 14, 2010

0 House of Strangers (1949)

Country: US
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Joseph L. Mankiewwicz won Oscars for writing and directing the sardonic comedy A Letter to Three Wives in 1949 (an accomplishment he would repeat a year later with All About Eve). That same year he also directed House of Strangers, a work quite different from his Oscar-winner. So overshadowed was this film by A Letter to Three Wives that I was barely aware of it until Dave Hicks included it in his film noir countdown at Goodfella's Movie Blog. With my fairly narrow view of that nebulous genre, I wouldn't really call it a film noir myself, although the lighting and cinematography by Milton Krasner have the noir-inflected look of many American films of the time, but its inclusion in the countdown and the comments made about it intrigued me enough to make me seek it out.

Based on a novel by Jerome Weidman, House of Strangers is about an Italian-American banking family, the Monettis—patriarch Gino (Edward G. Robinson) and his four sons, Max (Richard Conte, in a strong performance), a lawyer; Joe (Luther Adler), the eldest; Tony (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.), a dandy; and the none-too-bright Pietro (Paul Valentine), who dreams of being a professional boxer. Opera-loving Gino rules his family and runs his bank with a domineering attitude born of his willful personality. Max has his law office right inside the bank, but Gino keeps his other sons in menial positions of little responsibility and no status. Understandably, these three are resentful of both Gino's treatment of them and the obvious favoritism he shows towards Max. When Gino is arrested and charged with illegal banking practices, the dynamic is in place for a power struggle to see who will succeed him as head of the Monetti dynasty.

Modern viewers will detect in House of Strangers many resemblances to The Godfather, beginning with the very first scene, as Max walks down an open-air market street in New York's Little Italy and up to the door of the bank. Viewers of the time almost certainly would have seen similarities to the plays of Arthur Miller from the late 1940s—All My Sons and Death of a Salesman—with their emphasis on troubled relationships between fathers and sons. Those familiar with Shakespeare will immediately notice parallels to King Lear: the egotistical patriarch, the favored child, the patriarch's fall from power, and the struggle between the loyal child and the envious siblings to determine who will assume the king's position. House of Strangers also throws in a love interest for Max, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward, who was just perfecting her persona of forceful femininity and is quite good), a WASP socialite who attempts to deflect the headstrong Max from the seemingly inevitable showdown with his brothers.

In the last year or two I've become aware that Edward G. Robinson—whom I had always thought of as an actor primarily of the 1930s, along with James Cagney the film epitome of the anarchic gangster figure of that era—was actually one of the best American screen actors of the 1940s, giving performances in that decade that are remarkable in both their intensity and their variety. Equally adept at playing villains or victims, men of great malevolence or great integrity, Robinson gave masterful performances in one film after another: as Wolf Larson in The Sea Wolf, in Double Indemnity, the two films he made for Fritz Lang, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, The Stranger, as the vicious gangster Johnny Rocco in Key Largo. In House of Strangers, his Gino Monetti is in a way a summation of the roles he had played during the entire decade, as he mines those performances to embody in one personality many of the qualities of character he had expressed in the previous ten years. It is quite possibly the most complex, most paradoxical, and grandest performance of his entire screen career.

Robinson's Gino Monetti is an observant judge of character, yet a man who seems blind to the contradictions in his own nature that drive his actions. He seems sincere in his desire to offer financial help to those whom other banks won't touch, yet as his trial reveals, he is not above exploiting them for exorbitant profits. He says the harsh treatment of his sons is intended to help them build character, which they clearly lack, yet he consistently undermines their self-confidence as he ruthlessly dominates them, openly bullying and humiliating them. He claims to be building a dynasty for his sons to inherit, yet he resists sharing power with them, instead clinging stubbornly to power himself, ruling from his palatial mansion with arbitrary tyranny and behaving in his office at the bank like a Renaissance prince granting audiences to subjects seeking his patronage. He is a shrewd, self-made businessman proud of his initiative and self-reliance, yet independent to the point of foolhardiness, as his disdain of banking laws and consequent legal problems indicate. He is in every way a classic tragic figure—a proud, inflexible man oblivious to his own flaws, his ego spinning so out of control that it causes him to self-destruct.

The movie's only glaring weakness is its almost complete lack of period detail. I wondered why at the beginning of the film Joe's office has a prominently displayed bust of Mussolini, but it was quite far into the movie before it became clear that the opening and closing scenes that frame the flashback structure of the film are set in the late 1930s, before the US entered World War II, and that the bulk of the movie takes place during the banking reforms of the early 1930s. The costumes, decor, and music don't adequately convey this fact, prolonging the confusion about when the events are taking place, when an on-screen title or two would have cleared up this point right away. Aside from this, I was quite impressed with House of Strangers. Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a nearly unbroken run of good films for several years in the late 1940s and early 1950s. House of Strangers is one of the best of this period and has been unjustly neglected.

Trivia note: The young actress who plays Joe's wife is Diana Douglas, married at the time to Kirk Douglas and the mother of Michael and Joel Douglas.


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