DVD: House of Strangers (1949)

January 1, 2016 | By


HouseOfStrangers1949Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label:  Twentieth Century-Fox

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  June 6, 2006

Genre:  Film Noir

Synopsis: After serving 7 years in prison, an ex-con is bullied by his thieving brothers into relinquishing his interest in the family bank business.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary by film historian Foster Hirsch / Theatrical Trailer / Still Gallery.





Although a classic film noir packed fine pedigree from Fox’s stable of top talent, this adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s eponymous novel is perhaps better known as the western Fox remade 5 years later as Broken Lance (1954), a more beloved CinemaScope production starring Spencer Tracey, Richard Widmark, and Robert Wagner.

According to genre historian Foster Hirsch, House of Strangers was given limited distribution when studio production chief Spyros Skouras objected to the film’s storyline of an immigrant family whose four sons divide up the family’s legacy after the hard-ruling patriarch lands himself in hot legal water. Company bigwig Darryl F. Zanuck kept the film away from wide distribution, but rumour has it the film actually raised the ire of the Giannini family, who founded the Bank of America and was among the main investors in the film industry during its early years – including studio Fox.

House of Strangers probably earned its reputation as a solid noir on TV and later home video, attracting film connoisseurs with its superb cast headlined by Edward G. Robinson as patriarch, autocrat, bully, and bank founder Gino Monetti; Richard Conte as his most loyal son / family lawyer Max; and gorgeous Susan Hayward as the hot dame Max initially accepts as a client before falling head over heels in love.

The only person who objects to Max’s romance is the mother of his fiancée Maria (Debra Paget, in her second credited role), whereas everyone else stays quiet, including father Gino, who feels it’s sometimes ‘okay’ to mix a little pleasure with business because that’s the way things are done.

Like Broken Lance, the core drama revolves around sibling jealousy seeded and encouraged by a bully father: Gino’s solely responsible for his legal mess, getting turfed from his own bank, and forced to live as a kept Papa, banned by his sons from setting foot in the new bank that bears the family brand name as sweet payback.

Philip Yordan’s script consists of a lengthy flashback midsection bookended by brief present day scenes in which Max is freshly released from prison after 7 years, and we’re left on edge until the finale, wondering if the good son will mete out his own revenge, act as an avatar for his now dead father’s sense of injustice, or spit in the faces of his jealous brothers and walk away.

Eldest brother Joe (underrated character actor Luther Adler) is married, yet treated like a lowly clerk, berated in front of staff by Gino; middle brother Pietro (Paul Valentine) is a “dumbhead” boxer working as a doorman and security guard; and youngest brother Tony (a baby-faced Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in his film debut) has his eyes on Maria, fine clothes, and good wine.

Gino forces the brothers to Wednesday pasta dinners at home, where the weaker brothers do menial errands for their father, including flipping the Victrola for another round of blaring opera that makes everyone talk loud. It’s the kind of chaos orchestrated by a bully, and when Joe gains control of the business, he makes sure the two weaker brothers respect his authority, inferred unsubtly by a huge bust of Mussolini in his spacious office.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Somewhere in the Night, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, All About Eve) only took on the directing chores, but there are the odd witty lines that seem to hint the esteemed writer-director may have done a quick script polish, giving the film some dry humour to ensure the whole tale wasn’t fully dreary. It’s an otherwise fine script with some great dialogue exchanges between characters, and Robinson steals scenes from his fellow actors even though he’s doing a sometimes rich emulation of an Italian immigrant.

Robert Krasker’s cinematography is quite beautiful, exploiting the eerie shadows in streets and night shots, and the high contrast lighting in the final confrontation between all four brothers is especially striking. Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score mixes orchestral with some light source jazz, and the sets are very evocative of a family that’s pooled their wealth into a privileged life.

Perhaps one reason Fox chose to remake the film as a western lies in producer Sol Siegel, who may have felt he was given a raw deal when his production was given poor distribution. Disguised as a western, the redo (which credits Yordan for the story) still retains the basic conflicts of a son newly released from jail and the angst felt by his brothers, but many aspects were changed. What survived were the ongoing loathing between the elder brother and his younger rival, the father being emasculated after losing his power of the family business, and the lure of an old portrait which each returning son regards with awe, and a little fear.

The finale in Broken Lance refines the brotherly conflict to a more personalized attempt at vengeful murder, and where Gino Monetti is ultimately detested by good son Max, in the western good son Joe has less rage towards his Pa: father Matt Devereaux simply picked Joe as his favourite and rode the rest hard like disposable work hands.

Fox’s DVD was one of the last in its film noir series, and while a good transfer, it’s one in need of a proper restoration, as the source print has uneven grey levels and blotches when the lighting has less severe contrast. The mono mix is fine, whereas the bullshit stereo mix is an echoey drainpipe process that sounds terrible.

Besides a trailer, the most substantive extra is the commentary by author and genre historian Hirsch, but it’s sadly a banal track that suffers from great big gaps of silence, spurts of comments that literally point out onscreen action, and only rare bits of historical ephemera. Instead of a fluid retrospective and analysis of the film within the genre, its wholly forgettable and pales in comparison to the lengthy and detailed discussions by James Ursini and Alain Silver that appear on discs like Panic in the Streets (1950) and Call Northside 777 (1948).

Weidman’s novel was adapted for film as the noir House of Strangers (1949), the western Broken Lance (1954), and the circus-laden (!) The Big Show (1961).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB — Composer Filmography
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

Comments are closed.