The House on Telegraph Hill

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) movie poster

(1951) dir. Robert Wise
viewed: 06/25/07

San Francisco noir!  Robert Wise!  These were the appeals of this film that I wasn’t terribly familiar with otherwise.

Robert Wise was one of those solid American directors who made good films through several decades and crossing many genres.  I’ve written about The Body Snatcher (1945) & The Curse of the Cat People (1944), so while he’s not one of the major figures in Hollywood filmmaking, he certainly was a good filmmaker who had some particular high points.

For me, one of the top pleasures of the film is the setting in San Francisco and the many lovely location shots throughout the city, not simply the overused shots of the most familiar sites, most touristy ones, but rather parts of the city that are beautiful, but are neighborhoods, particularly North Beach and Telegraph Hill in the film.  Many San Franciscans, and think of us as you will, have this love for the city which adds romanticism to seeing it captured at different points in time.  This film has some really nice views.

As a film, it’s good.  Following a Polish concentration camp survivor who takes up the identity of a friend who died in Belsen, the film trails Victoria Kowelska who comes to the US to claim the life of her friend as she had nothing else.  When she is told that the whole family is dead in San Francisco, she still travels to the country with nowhere else to go.  She ends up finding that the son of her friend is still alive and is due the estate of the rich aunt who had died and also ends up marrying the man who has become the boy’s guardian.  There is a lot of intrigue around her guilt of lying about her identity and the developing paranoia of the potential that her husband may be out to kill her for the money.

Yeah, the story is a lot to put down here, so I’ll leave it at that.  The DVD has a decent, interesting commentary by Eddie Muller, a Noir historian, who has a deep interest in the film and a passion for the lead actress, Valentina Cortese, who is very good.  He points out several interesting things, such as the fact that the film is not pure noir, but does carry some of the pathos and cinematography and other motifs.  He also notes that the “house” of the title is a facade that was constructed in front of a restaurant and that the outdoor shots meant to be the backyard of the house were actually the gardens around Coit Tower.  I didn’t listen to the whole commentary, but I enjoyed what I skipped around on.

They don’t make movies like this anymore.  Could they?  It’s clearly a post-war themed film, created during the heart of the film noir period in Hollywood.  There is a keen simplicity to the conflicts, to the mysteries, even if the narrative sounds convoluted.  Solid stuff in my mind.

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