The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951)
What, exactly, does one call a movie from the age of film noir that obviously wants to be a piece of noir, but doesn’t quite make it? This is the problem I find in trying to review The House on Telegraph Hill, Robert Wise’s fine…um…crime drama? Mystery/thriller? I don’t know. But I know it isn’t noir. And the really frustrating bit is that I can’t tell you where the film breaks the rules, because that would be a spoiler. (Though if you know noir, my very saying that is probably enough to give the game away.) But it’s a minor point anyway; whatever you end up calling this movie, it’s quite a good one. Not as well-known as any number of Wise’s other films, but as good as, if not better than, many of those for which he is more recognized (West Side Story, the first Star Trek film, The Andromeda Strain…). Wise released two movies in 1951: this and The Day the Earth Stood Still. That’s a year any director could be justifiably proud of.
Plot: Victoria Kowelska (Valentina Cortese, from the 1948 adaptation of Les Miserables) is an inmate at Belsen concentration camp during World War II. She befriends another Polish prisoner, Karen Dernakova (Comrade X‘s Natasha Lytess, better known for being Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach than for any of her own screen roles), who has family in America and the papers to prove it. When Karen dies during Belsen’s liberation, Victoria, broke, hungry, and desperate for a new life, switches papers with her and heads for America. When she gets there, she’s confronted by a lawyer retained by distant-cousin-by-marriage Alan Spender (La Strada‘s Richard Basehart—who would end up marrying Valentina Cortese by the time filming wrapped) challenging her identity; it seems she and her husband had been reported dead some time before. She manages to convince Spender that she had not, in fact, died (after all, during the period Karen was supposed to be dead, the two of them were swapping life stories in Belsen), and Spender reveals that Victoria-now-Karen is no longer broke at all—in fact, she’s quite wealthy. The two of them get hitched and move out to the family pile in San Francisco, from which the film derives its name. Victoria meets Karen’s now-nine-year-old son Christopher (Holiday Affair‘s Gordon Gebbert, a child star whose career would be over by 1960), and the three of them form what would seem to be the perfect family, though the family governess Margaret (Notorious‘ Fay Baker) seems somewhat nonplussed, perhaps even jealous, that Christopher’s mother has stepped back into his life. (You can see the problem here.) Soon after, Victoria becomes convinced that Alan means to do her harm, and turns to local lawyer Marc Bennett (The Sea Hawk‘s William Lundigan), a mmeber of the team who liberated from Belsen and Victoria’s only acquaintance in San Francisco outside the family, for help.
It’s got everything you expect—or should expect—from a Robert Wise film. The script is nicely-produced, if a bit stock now and again, and it is delivered very nicely by good actors who have just a little more wrung out of them than usual. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch) makes it all look great, the soundtrack is just right, etc. Well-plotted, well-paced, enjoyable if predictable; The House on Telegraph Hill is a good one if you’re looking for a quality thriller. *** ½