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The House on Telegraph Hill

The House on Telegraph Hill(1951)

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In the plot of The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) one can find elements of many other movies, most of all Rebecca (1940). Both center around a big house presented as a menacing character and both feature in their scenarios an abandoned shack or playhouse, a sinister housekeeper or governess, a scared new bride, and family secrets. Ultimately, however, The House on Telegraph Hill is a gothic mystery-drama with a strong film noir atmosphere and is more in the tradition of Val Lewton than Alfred Hitchcock.

Valentina Cortesa stars as a Pole suffering in a concentration camp during WWII. When the camp is liberated, she assumes the identity of a dead woman who had previously sent her son to San Francisco to stay with a rich aunt. Arriving in America after years of effort, Cortesa finds that the aunt has died and the boy is being cared for by a trustee (Richard Basehart) of the estate and a governess (Fay Baker). Cortesa marries Basehart but soon realizes there is more to the set-up than meets the eye, and starts to worry for her life and the boy's.

The sense of film noir comes from the increasing paranoia we are made to share with Cortesa (who's in almost every scene) and from the movie's striking visual style. Director Robert Wise and director of photography Lucien Ballard create some exquisite lighting effects with strong contrasts and layers of shadows. Clearly Wise brought his training under Val Lewton to bear here. Wise had cut his directing teeth on the Lewton-produced Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945), low-budget films in which black-and-white lighting was a primary instrument of audience participation and dread. Several scenes here could be right out of a Lewton picture. Further, the house is made to feel like a gothic prison through lighting, camera angles and art direction. (In fact, the film received a sole Oscar nomination for Art Direction.) Wise's editing background also creates some gripping scenes, especially a beautifully cut runaway car sequence. These touches make up for a story which peters out somewhat at the end.

Also helping matters is a great cast, starting with Valentina Cortesa. A lovely and exotic-looking Italian with an intriguing face, Cortesa was one of Darryl Zanuck's little experiments. He had imported her for his earlier Fox noir, Thieves' Highway (1949), a very good film in which Cortesa had made a genuine impression. (He altered the spelling of her last name from "Cortese" to "Cortesa," presumably so that Americans would know how to pronounce it.) Zanuck was trying to build a Hollywood career for her, but she only lasted in Hollywood for five pictures, this being the last.

Co-star Richard Basehart was already a film noir fixture, having given outstanding performances in He Walked By Night (1948), Reign of Terror (1949) and Fourteen Hours (1951). (He also starred in Sam Fuller's first-rate Korean War combat film Fixed Bayonets!, 1951). Recently-widowed Basehart and Cortesa fell in love while making The House on Telegraph Hill and were married within a year. He moved to Italy to live with her, pretty much giving up his Hollywood career in the process. While he did make a few American movies in the 1950s, he made more European films including Fellini's La Strada (1954). When he and Cortesa divorced in 1960, he returned to the States, remarried, and resumed acting in American movies and televison. Cortesa pursued her career in Italy very successfully on stage and screen, and as of 2006 is 81 years old.

Fox Home Entertainment's DVD of The House on Telegraph Hill features a fine transfer. Extras include a superb set of photo galleries, particularly the behind-the-scenes shots, trailers for this and other Fox noirs, and Eddie Muller's commentary track, which contains some worthwhile facts but ultimately isn't terribly engaging. Muller spends too much time, for example, explaining in a travelogue style exactly where in San Francisco certain shots were made, and how they relate to his own life as a native San Franciscan. When he does discuss moviemaking techniques, he doesn't go into enough detail for this viewer's taste. Still, overall this is a satisfying movie presented by Fox with style, and it's well worth a look.

For more information about House on Telegraph Hill, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order House on Telegraph Hill, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold