Saturday, 9 August 2014

Movie Review: The House On Telegraph Hill (1951)


A woman-in-danger spooky thriller, The House On Telegraph Hill finds new twists on the familiar theme of a large house filled with dangerous secrets.

In Poland during World War Two, Victoria Kowalska (Valentina Cortese) loses everything and barely survives imprisonment in a German concentration camp. Fellow prisoner Karin Dernakova (Natasha Lytess) reveals that she has a young son Christopher in the United States being cared for by a wealthy Aunt Sophia. Karin dies just before liberation and in the ensuing confusion Victoria assumes Karin's identity in the hopes of one day making it to America. She is initially processed by Major Marc Bennett (William Lundigan) and placed in a camp for displaced persons. Years later, she does make it to New York, and seeks to connect with Christopher.

Victoria, now fully pretending to be Karin, learns that Aunt Sophia has died and left her fortune to Christopher, who has been adopted by distant relative Alan Spender (Richard Basehart). After bluffing about legal action to reclaim her rights, Victoria makes her peace with Alan, they start a romance, get married and move to the Spender household in San Francisco. Alan lives in a scenic mansion on Telegraph Hill, but Victoria finds the house also occupied by the possessive Margaret (Fay Baker), Christopher's long-term caregiver. Soon, Victoria starts falling victim to mysterious accidents, and senses that all is not right in the Spender household. She reconnects with Marc to try and understand the strange behaviour of Alan and Margaret.

Directed by Robert Wise, The House On Telegraph Hill has plenty of noirish Hitchcockian elements. The film thrives on gradually increasing levels of suspense, seemingly normal people turning creepy, and a succession of incidents that can either be accidents or wilful acts of violence. Victoria finally finds herself alone in a foreign land and fending off two determined and surreptitious foes in Alan and Margaret.

The film gains an edge by providing Victoria with a dark secret of her own. Her impersonation of Karin is selfish, and she has less rights towards Christopher than either Margaret or Alan. And yet Wise manages to park all of the film's sympathy with Victoria, as despite her faults she means well, establishing a pure bond with Christopher while bravely striving to adapt to a new country and new surroundings. The film explores themes of suffering, reward and entitlement, with Victoria enduring the horror of the concentration camps a possible justification for her seeking a better life through dishonest means, while Alan is presented as desperate to climb the social ladders, feeling that life owes him for a poor childhood.

Towards the final third the film gets itself into a bit of a muddle involving old cable messages and shady lawyers, as the triangular drama between Alan, Margaret and Victoria gets drawn out longer than needed. The reintroduction of Marc's character is promising but eventually leads nowhere. The climax, though, involving glasses of orange juice that may or may not poisoned, is a study in astute low-key suspense.

Wise makes excellent use of San Francisco locations, and even throws in an excellent runaway car sequence on the film's famed hilly streets.

Richard Basehart plays Alan with a surface smile trying to hide malevolent intent, and succeeds in building a slippery villain. Italian actress Valentina Cortese does a fine job as the enigmatic heroine battling inner demons as she tentatively carves out a role in a world she earned by subterfuge. William Lundigan is handsome but one dimensional, while Fay Baker is ominous as a nanny guarding against unexpected threats from multiple directions.

Victoria discovers that mortal perils can come in many disguises and on both sides of the ocean, as The House On Telegraph Hill is full of mysteries hidden in troubled souls.






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