House of Strangers

Back in 2015 I looked at Broken Lance, a superior western and a remake of an earlier movie. I remarked at the time that I preferred the later version of the story and that’s still the case. Nevertheless, House of Strangers (1949), the original adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s novel, is an excellent piece of work when viewed in its own right. All versions and adaptations of stories bring something different to the table: the sensibilities of the filmmakers involved, themes added or removed, highlighted or suppressed. Where Broken Lance broadened and extended the scope of the material, House of Strangers retains a tighter focus overall.

A crowded sidewalk, bustling and bursting with life, and amid it all the eye is drawn to one solitary figure making his way through the vibrant mass, a detached and determined figure. He pauses before the imposing facade of a bank, the guard inside eyeing him fishily through the polished plate glass. This is Max Monetti (Richard Conte), once a sharp and arrogant lawyer but now just another ex-con. Actually, he’s a bit more than that; the bank was once the domain of his late father Gino Monetti (Edward G Robinson) before it was taken over by three of his sons, and before Max spent seven years as a guest of the state for jury tampering. Some of the brashness is still there though, and it’s enough to worry his siblings. It’s here that the lengthy flashback which occupies most the running time kicks in, showing how a family turned upon itself and slowly disintegrated, how rivalry and dissatisfaction became the seeds of hatred, how an old woman’s heart was broken and how a once grand home was transformed into a mausoleum to pernicious pride.

As in the image above, the past is forever peering over the shoulders of the characters. And it’s not just the malign spirit of Gino Monetti haunting his sons and poisoning their hearts, for even the old man in life was haunted by the specter of penury and subservience. The whole movie concerns itself with characters racing to keep a step ahead of their past, be it the stifling “old world” traditions that Gino professes to be desperate to throw off while apparently reveling in their trappings or another generation’s desire to be free of the too firm hold of an overcritical patriarch. Underpinning all of this is the concept of revenge or retribution, and the corrosive effect it has for all who drink from that particular cup.

I opened by speaking of a narrower focus, and I feel House of Strangers actively seeks to present a sense of restrictiveness. Instead of showing family as a symbol of fertility, it offers up a view of a stagnant and suffocating household, and I think it’s no coincidence that much of the action is rooted in the Monetti house and the old bank. Both structures have an old-fashioned ambience, a workplace where the sons are kept firmly in place – literally caged in the case of the elder brother Joe (Luther Adler) – and with limited options, and a home that is almost overpowering in the sheer weight and oppressiveness of its decor. The contrast with the light, spacious and airy apartment of Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), the one person in the movie with an outward-looking perspective, and the one who represents the chance for a clean break with the past and new start on the west coast, is marked and unmistakable.

Susan Hayward’s presence adds much to this movie. Her drive, allure, and most of all her infectious self-confidence represent the best hope of salvation for Richard Conte’s Max. The frank and witty dialogue those two trade is a highlight, giving an edge to their passion and, in Conte’s case, allowing his character to become much more rounded. Joseph L Mankiewicz, who apparently had an uncredited hand in the writing alongside Philip Yordan, was noted for the use of sophisticated dialogue and it’s a real boon in this picture. The visuals and themes are well handled and well realized, but the smartness of the script gives everything extra vigor.

Richard Conte could always be relied on when you needed someone tough and streetwise, and he starts out incredibly sure of himself, unpleasantly so in fact. It’s largely through his interaction with Hayward though that he unbends gradually, looking out instead of in, realizing what to embrace and what to reject. Edward G Robinson plays a man it’s hard to like – even in his more expansive and beneficent moods there’s a shade of self-importance about him. As the story progresses, this latter quality develops, eventually running to bitterness and, ultimately, spite and vindictiveness. With a trio such as Robinson, Hayward and Conte headlining, there’s not a lot of space left for others to make their mark. That said, Luther Adler is subtly impressive, enduring the pettiness and humiliations as he broods and nurtures a deep resentment. In support Paul Valentine and Efrem Zimbalist Jr are the other two browbeaten offspring, while the imposing Hope Emerson seems an unlikely mother to the diminutive Debra Paget.

House of Strangers was released on DVD years ago as part of the Fox Film Noir line and the image is pleasing if not perfect, with a few trailers and a commentary track by Foster Hirsch as supplements. All told, this is the kind of highly polished picture one would expect from 20th Century Fox and Joseph L Mankiewicz. The shift to a western setting allowed Broken Lance to successfully explore other ideas and make it a more satisfying experience. However, I like to examine every movie on its own merits and I feel House of Strangers deserves to be praised for what it is rather than disparaged for what it isn’t.

50 thoughts on “House of Strangers

  1. Pingback: House of Strangers | Riding the High Country | Crawfordgold's Blog

  2. Beautifully written, Colin. “Broken Lance” and “House of Strangers” are both strong films. You’re right that the claustrophobia in “House of Strangers” is very intense — so much so that it weighed on me as a viewer. The Western setting and Dmytryk’s use of Cinemascope mitigates that feeling in BL somewhat though the tension and heaviness remain. Your eloquent review makes me want to see “House of Strangers Again”.

    It is somewhat humorous that the 6’2″ Hope Emerson was cast as the mother of 5’2″ Debra Paget.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks very much, Frank. The mood is intensified by that cluttered over-elaborate house, which is a superb piece of set decoration of course, something that’s often apparent in Fox productions of the era. Broken Lance opens everything up more, the ‘Scope lens obviously contributes, as does the use of exteriors. The tensions do remain and are integral to the story in both versions – just with variations.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Broken Lance | Riding the High Country

  4. Great review. What a household! Always good to have Conte in a top role. The only son who stood up to the father,
    The theme was so popular it also turned up in a circus setting, The Big Circus.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I am much less taken with Broken Lance, credited to Yordan, a guy to avoid. This thing nails its narrow focus, while Broken Lance rambles and is underplayed and misplayed throughout, by all of them. Oh, and Efrem Zimbalist makes his presence felt attractively; it would be his last work on the screen for several years due to tragedies in his personal life.

    Like

    • I really can’t agree with that assessment of Broken Lance, especially with regard to the performances – Widmark in particular rarely put a foot wrong.
      Again, I think it’s unfair to say it rambles. The picture incorporates – pretty successfully, in my opinion – a wider range of themes and concerns, but the focus is always there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was astonished that Widmark played that part, but I believe he would have, at that point, done anything to get out of his Fox contract. Wagner, an actor I like, was thoroughly insipid, Tracy seemed to have indigestion and belched his way through. All this is personal preference, not intended as definitive.

        Like

  6. If not for the fact that the Evil Empire that is Disney bought out Fox, there might have been some slim chance that some boutique label like Indicator could have released a collection of Fox’s noir output in some future Blu-ray set. Its really an inevitable sign of the times that films such as this are so hard to get a hold of and see.

    I wonder if Disney+ will someday have a section for old classic (and not-so classic, too) films if only for posterity’s sake (mind, it wouldn’t be a bad move for Netflix either)? I’ll never subscribe to Disney+ for more Buzz Lightyear or singing princesses, but I’d be tempted if it opened the doors to some of the vault material the mouse now owns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s fair to say they are both excellent movies, just doing different tings with the same source material. And I believe this is the approach remakes ought to take.

      Like

  7. Terrific piece of analytical writing, Colin, that was a pleasure to read. “HOUSE OF STRANGERS” is high on my radar when it comes to films I want to catch up with again and your review is going to boot it up the list considerably.
    I have seen the film but not for many years and “BROKEN LANCE” is much more familiar to me. Two films with powerful actors in the lead role and no slouches in support (Conte / Widmark)!
    I was interested to read Barry’s information concerning Efrem Zimbalist jr, an actor I very much appreciate, and his absence from the screen. Must learn more.

    Like

    • It’s a film that’s well worth revisiting, Jerry, and I can happily recommend you do so when the opportunity arises. With both versions it’s a case of solid source material being interpreted in different ways by two sets of talented artists. The results reflect these differences, but in a good way.

      Like

    • Well Yordan did write the original screenplay for this and the remake. Also, it should be noted that the Oscar for Broken Lance was for Best Story, original screenplay was a separate category at that point and they were only combined a few years later. The Best Story category allowed material which had been used before to be nominated.

      Liked by 2 people

      • “Yordan did write the original screenplay for this and the remake.”

        Not really. First, House is based on a novel by Jerome Weidman. Yordan was fired from the movie, and Joseph L. Mankewicz wrote the script from scratch. Yordan didn’t write Bronken either — He later admitted that he didn’t work on the film and that the script was written by Ricard Murphy. In my opinion, Weidman, not Yordan, should have gotten the Oscar since he wrote the book both movies are based on.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. R.I.P. Barbra Shelley 1932-2021
    Beautiful Miss Shelley was on the big and small screen from 1953 to 1992. Credits include, CAT GIRL,BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE, DEADLY RECORD, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, THE SHADOW OF THE CAT, THE GORGON and numerous television appearances.

    Like

  9. Our terrific TV channel in the UK, Talking Pictures TV, has come up with yet another rare Republic film for viewing at the begining of February. It is a 1940 film, “GRAND OLE OPRY”, which features a story starring Allan Lane (later to become western star ‘Rocky’ Lane) and featuring a number of acts from Nashville TN’s famous show. Now this may be of absolutely no interest to any readers of this great blogsite except Yours Truly but The Grand Ole Opry began as a stage show broadcast over the radio in 1925 and is still going strong nearly a century later!! In 1940 the Opry was really taking hold, the majority of acts being rural string bands and musicians. But by 1940 it was being headlined by Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys who became phenomenally popular and went on for half a century. Indeed my (then new) wife and I saw them headline a show at Wembley in London around 1978 or so. They darned nearly brought the house down!
    Anyway, if no one else is interested I will be watching, for sure. Anyone else out there find this positive news?

    Like

    • Jerry,
      Could not agree more regarding the Grand Ole Opry. Claude and I visited Nashville several times during the late eighties and nineties, staying at the Opryland Hotel, which by the way, is or at least was first class.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I seem to remember (I hope), Barry, that you were a fan of the great Marty Robbins?

        We got to Nashville in 2011, visited The Opryland Hotel (massive) plus the Opry, the Ryman and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Great to have finally made it but how I wish I could have visited the E.T. Record Shop when my all-time favourite country singer, Ernest Tubb, had been alive and hosting and appearing on the famous Midnight Jamboree, broadcast live every Saturday midnight over WSM.
        We did get to go twice to fabulous live music at The Station Inn there.

        Like

        • Jerry,
          We got into the Nashville scene via the now defunct Nashville Network, and were devoted fans of The Melody Ranch Theater in which Gene Autry and Pat Buttram, in between commercials and acts, discussed Gene’s career and the film being shown. The other show we had fun with was called Nashville Now with various guest hosts, and it followed Crook and Chase hosted by Loriane Crook and Charlie Chase. All of these were a lot of un. No Marty Robbins, but certainly not against him.

          Like

          • I had a sneaking suspicion I had you mixed with someone else (Blake?) on the Marty Robbins thing, Barry. Sorry about that.
            I discovered country music in 1960 and its ‘looked-down-upon’ cousin Bluegrass in 1967. I follow and collect the latter to this day but gave up on country some time ago. Just pop music now; I don’t hear any difference. Still love country from the 1930s to the 1960s and then for a while in the late ’80s and 90s.

            Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t have access to the channel where I am, Jerry , but I passed this info on to my parents who are country music fans – country always was and remains a big draw and a huge seller in Ireland – and I’ve no doubt they will tune in.

      Like

  10. I watched “House of Strangers” again and liked it very much. The more I see of Richard Conte, my appreciation for his abilities grows. On a hunch, I watched “The Sleeping City” directed by George Sherman and starring Conte. He’s impressive as a cop who goes undercover as an intern to investigate the murders of young residents who work at Bellevue. Much of the movie was shot on location in and around Bellevue on 1st Avenue in Manhattan. I found it suspenseful with a crisp script and dialogue by Jo Eisinger (“Night and the City”). Colleen Gray and John Alexander offer fine support but Alex Nicol shines as a stressed-out intern. Little known actor George Tabor playing an elevator operator steals every scene he’s in. I imagine most of the RTHC community has seen “The Sleeping City” but, if not, I recommend it. The only hitch is that the mayor of NYC forced Universal to put a disclaimer at the beginning stating that murder and corruption don’t really take place at Bellevue. Richard Conte, in medical garb, delivers the disclaimer.

    I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, but I’ll only mention one, “Mademoiselle Fifi”, as it seems to be off the grid. It’s a low budget costume drama set in France during the Franco Prussian War and stars Simone Simon. I was attracted to it as it is directed by Robert Wise and produced by Val Lewton. Some may scoff at it but I liked it. Has anyone else seen it?

    Liked by 2 people

    • No, not seen that Wise movie and I’ve been trying to catch up with as much of his stuff as I can recently.

      The Sleeping City has come up in conversation here before and it’s one I hope to get to over the coming months.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.