Thursday, March 14, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951)

The Maltese Falcon (1941) made San Francisco a true noir town, defined by shadows and fog, and many subsequent films have returned to the city by the bay to take advantage of its seductive yet deadly atmosphere, including, of course, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Compared with such iconic works, director Robert Wise's The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) is by no means the best or most famous San Francisco noir, but it does make very good use of its title setting. It also features a particularly intriguing plot in which the heroine of the story, like Kim Novak in Vertigo, has some extremely complicated identity issues, but, unlike Novak's dual personalities, Valentina Cortese's protagonist possesses the strength and raw determination of a true survivor.

Cortese plays Victoria Kowelska, who endures years of hardship in Poland during World War II and struggles to survive in a Nazi concentration camp. When her friend, Karin, succumbs to illness and starvation, Victoria assumes Karin's identity in order to gain passage to America, where Karin's aunt and son live. By the time Victoria reaches the United States, the aunt is dead, and little Christopher is being raised by Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), a distant relative who seems to enjoy the wealth and privilege of the aunt's home on Telegraph Hill. Victoria marries Alan for practical reasons, but soon she begins to suspect that Alan's own motives are not very ethical, either, especially since he has an unusually intense relationship with Margaret (Fay Baker), Christopher's governess. Victoria's situation is further complicated by her own burgeoning feelings for Marc (William Lundigan), an acquaintance of Alan's whom Victoria knows from the end of her time in Poland.

The heroine's duplicitous game makes her unusual because she is both sympathetic and self-serving, not a true femme fatale but not an innocent, either. Victoria justifies her actions by reasoning that they cannot hurt her dead friend, and she tries to make up for her deception with her lavish maternal devotion to Karin's child. Still, there's a sense of karmic retribution when Victoria gets caught up in the web of lies enveloping Telegraph Hill. She even acknowledges that her predicament is earned in some measure by her own choices. Another difference stems from Victoria's identity as a survivor in the truest sense of the word. We first see her, dirty and gaunt, fighting other women for food in the concentration camp; unlike the real Karin, Victoria is tough, and thus we have faith in her resilience, even when Alan's sinister intentions become shockingly clear. The climactic scene provides a reversal of the famous milk glass sequence in Suspicion (1941) and offers a particularly compelling look at the qualities that set Victoria apart from other noir heroines.

While Cortese is excellent as the leading lady, the rest of the cast vary in the quality of their performances. Richard Basehart plays his slippery part well, and Fay Baker captures the conflicted aspects of the governess with skill, especially near the picture's end. William Lundigan is rather flat as Victoria's straight arrow love interest, but that might be more the fault of the role than the actor. At any rate, he's not particularly memorable here. Gordon Gebert is a little too placidly all-American as Karin's son, Christopher, and one gets the feeling that this movie doesn't really know how to treat him as a character rather than a mere plot device. The use of San Francisco, on the other hand, is consistently good, especially when Victoria tries to steer an out-of-control car down one of the city's famously inclined streets. Wise, who spent his early career under the tutelage of Val Lewton, handles atmosphere beautifully, and the San Francisco setting gives him of plenty of material to develop.

You can see more of Robert Wise's handiwork in The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and The Haunting (1963), although he's best remembered today for musicals like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Catch Richard Basehart in Tension (1949) and La Strada (1954) for a sense of his range as an actor. Italian actress Valentina Cortese earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Day for Night (1973), but you'll also find her in Thieves' Highway (1949) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Finally, you might recognize Gordon Gebert for his other childhood roles in Holiday Affair (1949) and The Flame and the Arrow (1950). He also plays young Audie Murphy in the 1955 biopic, To Hell and Back.