Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Robert Wise's House on Telegraph Hill is sort of a post-war Rebecca that has all the ingredients of a good film noir. Darryl Zanuck's attempt to turn Valentina Cortesa (Thieves' Highway) into a star fails for want of a more focused screenplay. Director Robert Wise made many fine pictures and some that miss the mark, and this is one of his casualties.
Her family wiped out by the Nazis, Belsen survivor Victoria Kowelska (Valentina Cortesa) swaps identities with Karin de Nakova (Natasha Lytess), a dead friend with relatives in San Francisco. She goes to New York and finds out that the only surviving de Nakova has also died, but trustee Alan Spender (Richard Basehart) falls in love with her. They marry and move into the family mansion on a ritzy piece of San Francisco real estate. Karin/Victoria is happy to allow young Chris (Gordon Gebert) to take the place of her own lost boy, despite the interfering presence of Margaret, Chris' caretaker. Victoria plans never to reveal her true identity until suspicions arise that Alan may be a dangerous murderer out to seize the family fortune. She has only one person to turn to, Marc Bennett (William Lundigan), who she met briefly when Belsen was liberated. But can she trust Marc, and are her suspicions about Alan justified?
House on Telegraph Hill has a number of impressive scenes, good acting and smooth direction. It can also boast a lot of vintage location work in San Francisco, where Fox craftsmen conjured up the house of the title on a choice piece of Telegraph Hill real estate, just under Coit Tower.
Displaced war refugee Victoria Kowelska is an interesting leading lady. She passes herself off as someone else and in just a few weeks is transformed into a rich San Fransciscan heiress. Dana Lyon and Frank Partos' script delivers some good plot mechanics, but neglects the much more interesting character part of the story. The movie concentrates on Victoria's Rebecca- like situation: A husband with secrets, a house with an untold story, a governess with an icy attitude. Since we've already seen that movie, House is unsatisfying no matter how well it's played.
Victoria's emotional story never really develops. She's given an elaborate opening in Belsen and her first relocation meetings with William Lundigan's Major Bennett, and she's a very sympathetic character. Victoria has decided to live for the dead Karin, and only takes her identity because she's completely lost her own. In San Francisco she is given substitutes for the son and husband that the war took from her. We're eager for this Polish refugee to learn something from her experience, for her false identity to have an impact on the story.
But the movie more or less drops the issue. Victoria simply accepts her fine new wardrobe and new relationships and gets involved in a new mystery. When she reveals her old secret to the man she trusts, he accepts it without comment. The movie never addresses Victoria's deception and what it might mean, and House on Telegraph Hill never gets deeper than its surface mystery. If Victoria's strange origin isn't important to her character or the story, why is it even a part of the movie?
Richard Basehart has the difficult role of the husband who may be a killer, and does much better than did Cary Grant in Suspicion. At several instances we're convinced that his character is going to be proven innocent. We can be positive that Fay Baker's jealous housekeeper is behind the nefarious misdeeds in the Nakova house; Baker does well enough with a fairly impossible part. And Valentina Cortesa (sometimes Cortese) keeps the picture on its feet with her interesting smile and intelligent responses to new situations. She manages to suggest deeper feelings in Victoria with just her eyes.
Director Robert Wise could bring the best out of a good script, but he rarely improved a bad one -- he wasn't the kind to rewrite or make changes. We can bet that House on Telegraph Hill, a complicated location shoot, came in on or under budget, though.
But the character deficiency may have nothing to do with Wise's direction. High on the cast list is Steven Geray as a Doctor Burkhardt, a character that has been almost completely cut out of the movie. If commentator Eddie Muller is correct in telling us that Burkhardt is a psychiatrist, perhaps Valentina went to him to talk about her psychic distress over her identity "issues." Perhaps the missing character dimension of Victoria Kowelska was simply cut out of the picture.
What remains is an okay but not particularly memorable "woman in distress" thriller, capped with a "who's got the poison?" switcheroo game. Earlier on Victoria almost falls to her death while her husband watches, perhaps hesitating to save her. We needn't have worried, as the movie starts with Victoria narrating her flashback in past-tense voiceover. Unless she's speaking from the grave, as does William Holden in Sunset Blvd., the narration means she has to survive to the end of the story!
Fox's DVD of House on Telegraph Hill is a handsome B&W transfer of elements in fine shape. By 1951 film stocks and lighting technology were such that even the rear-projection process shots look perfect; special effects man Fred Sersen makes Valentina's close call, falling out of a crumbling building, seem quite real.
Eddie Muller's commentary brings out all of the issues above as well as asking whether or not House on Telegraph Hill is a real noir. We can tell what he really thinks -- without her identity conflict, Victoria isn't a noir character. Muller details the romance between stars Valentina Cortesa and Richard Basehart on the movie; they eventually married. Muller also proudly points out many details about the film's ample location scenes; he's a native San Franciscan and proud of it.
A trailer is included, along with four galleries of stills. Some ad art includes horrible paste-up photos with Valentina Cortesa's head grafted onto someone else's body. On-location stills show some of the trick camera angles used to convince us that the house on Telegraph Hill really is on Telegraph Hill. Oddly, the composite artwork on the cover billboards images of Richard Basehart and Fay Baker, but not Ms. Cortesa.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
House on Telegraph Hill rates:
Movie: Good -
Supplements: Commentary with Film Noir Historian Eddie Muller; Poster, Production Stills, Unit Photography and Special Shoot galleries; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 9, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson