Judge Patrick Bromley explores the dubious fringes of the noir neighborhood with Edward G. Robinson. Who better to watch a guy's back?
"It's time you learn something about the United States. I'm gonna tell you about it. It's called New World."—Gino Monetti
There's a funny thing about Fox's new DVD of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1949 film House of Strangers. The studio has released it as part of their Film Noir collection, which kicked off a little over a year ago with Otto Preminger's classic Laura; this new release is the seventeenth in the series. The funny thing about it is that House of Strangers really isn't film noir. It's melodrama. As film noir, it fails. As melodrama, it's pretty good. I guess it's all in how you label it.
I'm not judging the movie based on how the studio has deemed fit to market it, though. I really only bring this up to give potential blind-buyers plenty of notice: If you're looking for a good, old-fashioned, hard-boiled film noir, this isn't it. In that case, I direct you to the wonderful box sets that Warner Bros. has been putting out, most of which I have bought blindly and none of which have disappointed me. Even some of the earlier titles in the Fox line would be a better noir investment; it appears that by number seventeen, the well has run dry.
But enough about all of this. Let's talk about House of Strangers, an often slow-paced but otherwise effective melodrama that finds nearly all of its power in the magnificent central performance by Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, Double Indemnity). He plays Gino Monetti, an Italian immigrant and patriarch of the Monetti family. Gino owns a successful bank in New York City, where he employs three of his four sons: Joe (Luther Adler, The Loves of Carmen), the jealous mastermind; Pietro (Paul Valentine, Out of the Past), the brutish boxer; and Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Wait Until Dark), the quiet one. All three brothers are resentful of their charismatic, powerful father and jealous of their fourth brother, Max (Richard Conte, Thieves' Highway), a lawyer and the son most obviously favored by Gino.
As the film opens, Max is returning from a place that hasn't yet been made clear; all we know is that Gino has already passed away, and Max is looking to take revenge on his three brothers, looking for the seven years that he has lost. It's here that the movie flashes back to the events leading up to this moment, where we see Gino as a powerful and potentially corrupt figurehead in his community, and the way he seems to pit his boys against one another. There's also a less successful subplot involving Max's courtship of and love affair with a woman (Susan Hayward, I'll Cry Tomorrow) who represents a potentially different life for Max—a chance at the happiness he seems to be lacking everywhere else.
It's the stuff with Edward G. Robinson (doing a sometimes goofy Italian accent) that makes House of Strangers work. He's a great, tragic character—a man out of place and time, a proud, powerful man so stuck in his ways that even when confronted with the truth about who he is and what he's done, he's unable to reconcile himself to it. (Robinson was awarded Best Actor at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival for his work here.) Robinson, Mankiewicz, and screenwriter Philip Yordan (working from a novel by Jerome Weidman) also make the wise decision to never make judgments about Gino; he's likable and cruel, grand and petty, all at the same time. Maybe we believe that Gino has the best interests of his working-class, immigrant bank customers at heart, or maybe he really is corrupt and manipulative. Neither Robinson nor the movie ever makes a clear determination, and the movie's the better for it. It's a great character, and a great performance. So good, possibly, that the movie suffers when he isn't on screen; all of the material between Conte and Hayward is essentially disposable (though the most suited to the noir genre that Fox is trying to shoehorn the movie into). And though the movie sets up an excellent premise—the prodigal son returning home to take revenge on the brothers who wronged him—the flashback structure never allows that promise to be delivered on.
Fox's DVD of House of Strangers is mostly in keeping with the other entries in their Film Noir series. The film is presented with both acceptable stereo and mono (for the slavishly faithful) audio tracks, and in its original full-frame aspect ratio. The transfer is decent at best, but does show its age—it's nothing like the pristine, could-have-been-shot-yesterday transfers being done on the classics over at Warner Bros., which is yet another reminder of what incredible work is being done at that studio these days. A number of picture galleries, the movie's original theatrical trailer, and a few bonus trailers (for other titles in the Fox Film Noir line) comprise the majority of the bonus features, but just about all of those remain disposable. The best extra included is the feature-length audio commentary by film historian and author Foster Hirsch (what a great film historian name). In an age where just about every writer, director, and star is in the business of recording DVD commentary tracks—often with very little to say—I find these kinds of "historical" commentaries far more rewarding. There's an attempt to put the movie into context and reveal actual production information, not just laugh and recount what went on behind the scenes.
Having said that, I should also point out that Hirsch's commentary for House of Strangers comes up short, especially under the expectations I just outlined. For starters, there are far too many gaps in his talk; beyond that, he does little more than describe the action taking place on screen and extrapolates a possible (and relatively obvious) meaning from a number of shots and scenes. He does seem to feel, however, that the movie belongs firmly in the canon of film noir. I suppose that's why Fox chose him to do the track. He and I differ there. I guess that's why I'm writing the review.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Foster Hirsch
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