Robert Wise, 1951
Starring: Richard Basehart, Valentina Cortese, William Lundigan
In Belsen concentration camp, a young woman, Viktoria, is grief-stricken when her friend Karin dies. She knows that Karin is an heiress with a young son and a wealthy aunt living in California, so she steals Karin’s identity papers, hoping to use them if she survives. After liberation and time in a displaced persons camp, she eventually makes her way to New York. She learns that Sophia, Karin’s aunt has died, but is determined to reunite with Karin’s son, Christopher who is the heir to Sophia’s fortune. She meets Christopher’s guardian, Alan, and agrees to marry him after he falls in love with her. They become a reasonably happy family – Karin/Viktoria, Alan, and Christopher – living in Sophie’s magnificent house in San Francisco. Christopher’s governess, Margaret, dislikes Karin/Viktoria and soon she becomes paranoid that someone in the house is trying to kill her.
Robert Wise’s final entry in the classic film noir roster is not one of his best films – it’s difficult to compete with films like The Body Snatcher, The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, or The Sound of Music – but it still has a lot to offer. Though many films in the noir series focus on the aftermath of war and the struggle of adapting to life on a dramatically changed home front, few of these films directly address the concentration camps. Orson Welles’ earlier film The Stranger (1946) is a key example and concerns an escaped Nazi pretending to be a professor in a small New England town. This idyll is interrupted when a Nazi hunter sniffs out his trail and he grows increasingly paranoid and violent.
The House on Telegraph Hill, unfortunately, takes another approach with similar material. Viktoria, a concentration camp survivor, steals the identity of her friend and – like Orson Welles’ Nazi – hides herself in a suburban family. Karin’s real identity disappointingly fades away and I think the film would have been much stronger if her trauma came back to haunt her in a more substantial way. Instead, there are hints of it. The bombed-out playhouse, where Christopher was nearly killed and where she almost falls to her death, remind her of bombed-out buildings in Poland. This seems to trigger her paranoia and for a sizable chunk of the film, it is unclear whether Karin is succumbing to madness or someone is actually trying to kill her.
There are plenty of moody, Gothic elements and the film focuses on a heroine gradually succumbing to paranoia, along the lines of Gaslight, Rebecca, Suspicion, or The Two Mrs. Carrolls. The central plot mirrors several of these films, in which a husband – the mask of handsome, charming sanity – is actually trying to kill his wife. The House on Telegraph Hill unfortunately glosses over the important plot element that Viktoria has survived the horrors of a concentration camp, stolen another woman’s identity, and married a man she does not love in exchange for comfort and financial security. Though she does quickly come to love Christopher and regard him as a son, she is living a lie. It seems that the Production Code would typically require her to be punished or at least to come clean, but her false persona is basically ignored by the film’s midway point.
Italian actress Valentina Cortese (Thieves’ Highway) is fittingly sympathetic as Viktoria, strong and fragile in turns. Richard Basehart (He Walked by Night) nearly steals the film from her as the increasingly creepy husband and, perhaps oddly, the two married just before filming began and would remain together for the next decade. William Lundigan (The Sea Hawk) is pleasantly handsome, if a bit dull as Viktoria’s white knight and love interest, Major Bennett, though Fay Baker (Notorious) has perhaps the least screen time as the nanny, Margaret, but gives a wonderfully icy performance.
The House on Telegraph Hill is available on DVD or streaming on Amazon. It comes recommended for fans of female-themed noir movies or Gothic thrillers. Keep your eyes peeled from the lovely shots of the house and the San Francisco setting, which were captured by cinematographer from Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch). Robert Bassler, the film’s producer, also worked on Gothic serial killer thrillers The Lodger and Hangover Square, and The House on Telegraph Hill would make a nice triple feature with those two films.