Thanks to modern technology, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart notes, a remake of this 1950s thriller would be titled House on E-Mail Hill.
"This is the House on Telegraph Hill, where I once thought I'd find peace and contentment."
In the opening shots, the house looks sinister—a little bit like Dr. Frankenstein's castle. Stark black-and-white images and a light in the center give it that perfect haunted-house feel. There are no ghosts, per se, but a concentration camp survivor's haunting memories and the death of an elderly woman do cast death's specter over the proceedings.
Facts of the Case
Victoria (Valentina Cortese, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) went from a content life in Poland to being "one of the miserable strays" in a Nazi concentration camp. There, she befriends the frail Karin. When Karin dies three days before liberation, Victoria—who has seen her own life destroyed and knows Karin had relatives in the States—takes Karin's identity. "Poland does not exist any more for me," she tells herself as she tears up her own papers.
When she arrives in the States to claim Karin's identity, Victoria finds Karin's Aunt Sophia dead, and learns that custody of Karin's son Chris has been awarded to Alan Spender (Richard Basehart, La Strada, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). Seeing safety in Alan's arms, Victoria romances and quickly marries him, returning to the House on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
Soon, Victoria figures out that all is not well in this old house. First, there's the hole in Chris's playhouse, which he says was caused by an accident involving some cleaning supplies and his chemical set. Whatever the cause, the hole gives the playhouse a great view—and a sheer dropoff. Then there's the mysterious housekeeper Margaret (Fay Baker, Notorious), whose main skill is quietly sneaking up on people. In one scene, Victoria feels pity for Chris, who has been sent up to bed while the adults party downstairs. She brings the boy a dish of ice cream, which he accepts even though he fears Margaret's reaction. As soon as he takes a bite, Margaret turns up. She tells Victoria that she lets Chris make his own decisions, but the boy's change of heart about the ice cream after a sharp glance from Margaret says otherwise. "How long have you been concerned about Chris—a few weeks? I've been concerned about him all his life—night and day," the overly controlling Margaret tells Victoria.
Victoria finds comfort in Marc Bennett (William Lundigan, Inferno), who hangs around as a family friend even though his relations with Alan aren't that cordial, since Alan resents Marc's well-to-do upbringing. Is he in love with her himself?
Is Victoria in danger, or is it a case of Suspicion?
As mentioned above, the house plays a big role in this picture. The commentary notes that there was no real house, and points to the pieces of location shooting that mixed with sets and movie magic to create the impression of the huge, sinister mansion.
The look of the picture is also important, with lighting highlighting faces and setting atmosphere, including that of the late Aunt Sophia as she watches over her faux niece. One eerie scene early in the film, when Victoria spends her first night in bed in the house, sets the tone. A light seems to shine on Victoria's face as she tosses and turns, concerned about her deception and worried about the situation in the house. A cut to the window reveals that a branch whipping against the glass looks like a living monster. Even in daylight, the house seems shrouded in shadows. Note the way the shadows of tree branches reach out over Chris and Victoria when the two play catch in the backyard. The black-and-white photography comes across crisply in the film, although the trailer seems the worse for wear. The sound transfers well, too. Although it's nothing fancy, it seems as good as new.
The two leads are great. Richard Basehart sounds perfectly reassuring and sympathetic as Alan, while raising just enough doubt in the minds of movie viewers. Even when you know something's not right, it's easy to believe Alan as he tells Marc that Victoria must be imagining things, even after Marc learns of a close call she had with her car, thanks to faulty brakes that could have been cut. Valentina Cortese is convincing as a survivor, compassionate and caring toward a son who isn't really hers as she stands up to housekeeper Margaret; she telegraphs an inner strength even as she grows more frightened. In the commentary, Eddie Muller points out that some of the pain Cortese emoted was real, since she twisted an ankle and had other mishaps on the set. William Lundigan is bland as Marc, but Fay Baker portrays Margaret as a woman with a mix of really good intentions and nastiness—the perfect characteristics for a screen villain.
The stills gallery here is well arranged, with divisions for posters, production stills, unit photography, and publicity shots. I hope Fox is considering this as a new format for these photo bonuses. If you want to see the lovely Valentina Cortesa at her most glamorous, check out her publicity snaps. If you think modern movie trailers are getting annoying, check out the one for this picture. Since it reveals a key scene and plot twist, you'll want to wait until you've seen the movie, though.
In the commentary, film historian Eddie Muller gives the usual tidbits—the best among them the fact that Basehart and Cortesa fell in love on the set of this one, marrying and keeping it secret until a visa check. The two later headed back to her native Italy, where Basehart stayed until their divorce several years later. Some of Muller's comments veer into Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory; it's usually funny, but when he discussed a pair of Hollywood murders, the jokes seemed out of place. Budding set designers will like his take on the details on the piecing together of the sinister house.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the great performances do carry the movie, Muller did find some plot holes to fill in with jokes. How does Alan just forget about a big hole in his kid's playhouse, anyway?
Director Robert Wise isn't quite Alfred Hitchcock, but he does create a serviceable thriller that kept me entertained.
Not guilty. Be sure to show this one to any friends who are considering buying San Francisco real estate.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Historian Eddie Muller
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