Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
House of Strangers demonstrates that film noir isn't just about criminals and alienated detectives. This family saga is a rather negative look at the immigrant lifestyle that Hollywood normally treats with condescending approval. The sense of corruption is subtler than in the usual noir thriller, as the hero's urge to break the law comes about for basically honorable reasons.
Since the 1980s we've been told "the institution of the family is breaking down," in spite of the fact that dysfunctional families have been with us forever. Wonderful families are certainly not rare, but there's nothing better for drama than a dinner table seated with five or six mutually hostile people. Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs this Little-Italy version of King Lear with considerable style and subtlety.
Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) started his New York bank on a casual basis decades ago, and now he's in big trouble for flaunting Federal Regulations he doesn't really understand. He has four sons. Joe, Pietro and Tony (Luther Adler, Paul Valentine and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) are underpaid bank employees who can't wait to see Dad turned out to pasture; they're not above purposely undermining his position. Max (Richard Conte) is a lawyer. He has a workspace in his father's bank and is favored by the old man. Independent in all things, Max is not above a certain amount of shady business but has the greater good in mind. Engaged to a proper young woman, Maria Domenico (Debra Paget), he starts a flirtation with Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), who is as independent a thinker as he. But saving Dad's business means taking a big risk.
House of Strangers is an excellent discussion feature on the subject of ethics. It's a puzzle of the kind of moral grays that real people have to face. The Montetti family is an unhappy patriarchy. Old Gino, an opera-loving autocrat, has run his bank the same way since he switched from cutting hair thirty years before. He barely keeps records of his transactions and he applies arbitrary and subjective rules to his loans. He gives a helpless widow a generous deal, while a merchant who needs a new horse is charged exorbitant fees. Modern banking laws are finally catching up to Gino.
But Gino is not a sympathetic victim. He runs his house like an Old World fiefdom, demanding obedience from his sons. Relegated to a teller's cage and kept out of bigger bank business, the ambitious Joe (Luther Adler, a superior actor) has felt cheated for years. Pietro (Paul Valentine of Out of the Past) has been a doorman most of his adult life, while trying to make a name for himself as a boxer. The only son that Gino respects is the black sheep Max, played by new Fox noir star Richard Conte of Cry of the City. Max is a lawyer and runs a shady bail-bond service. Gino treats him like an equal but his brothers despise his success with money and women, while they have to grovel under dad's feet.
We know the family isn't working correctly when even Ma (Esther Minciotti of Marty and The Wrong Man) sits in sullen disapproval of her husband's tyranny. She feels the hatred in the room and blames the thick headed Gino for turning her home into a "House of Strangers."
When Gino goes on trial for crooked banking practices Max tries to defend him as best he can, but is defeated by the old man's stubborn arrogance on the witness stand. Max slowly realizes that his brothers secretly hope the bank will fail, so they can pick up the pieces and shut pop out. Desperate to keep his dad from jail, Max tries to fix the jury by buying off a witness. As it turns out his perfidious brothers may have initiated the banking investigation, and are keen to see Max in jail as well. That leaves the morality in a noir-ish tangle: Our hero, a slick operator on the edge of respectability, commits a foolish crime out of family loyalty. His "good citizen" brothers are in reality a pack of weasels. Adding salt to the wound, "colorful" old dad is an ungrateful jerk. Most Hollywood fare emphasizes the importance of family loyalty and honoring one's parents. In House of Strangers poor Max would have been much better off if he took care of his mother and let the rest of his kin simmer in their own bile. The brothers Monetti end up in an ugly and potentially murderous standoff.
The movie may have been heavily re-written by Mankiewicz, as it's much more polished than usual for a Philip Yordan script, and based on a convoluted flashback structure. Worked nicely into the story is Max's dynamic love life. He's engaged in the traditional way to beautiful Maria (Debra Paget), but treats her as a future bearer of his children and little else. Paget has a furious mother in tow (Hope Emerson) that continually rails against Max's womanizing. Gino obviously thinks this is a great state of affairs and has fun putting the mother in her place.
Max has no intention of staying true to his fiancée before or after their impending wedding. He takes up with the dangerous and fascinating Irene Bennett, a woman more to his liking. The plot details throw Max's attitude to women in strong relief to his other qualities. He's a modern American business thinker (read: a sharp angle player) but in romance prefers to maintain himself as the standard Old World big boss with wife and mistress at his beck and call. Paget's Maria is ready to play this game but Irene gives Max a run for his money. When he gets possessive she's willing to buck him all the way.
House of Strangers takes pains to present other "romantic" relationships in a bad light, even in its details. While Max waits in a restaurant we see a young girl obviously being pressured by an older man. Richard Conte's Max is an interesting blend of sympathetic qualities and an unusual type to become the fall guy in a cheap crime. House of Strangers is much more mature than the usual noir in that it makes no excuses for its hero's bad judgment. Yes, his brothers set him up and his loyalty to his father isn't returned, but they don't make Max break the law. He accepts the responsibility for his own mistakes.
Diana Douglas has a role as Max's younger sister, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is the least interesting of Max's brothers. A few years later Fox adapted and re-made House of Strangers as the big Spencer Tracy Western Broken Lance.
Fox's DVD of House of Strangers is a fine B&W transfer of this under-praised, solid drama. Historian and author Foster Hirsch provides a commentary that gets a little high-handed with assigning thematic significance to each camera angle, but his background facts are studiously chosen. Because of objections from Spyros Skouros, Darryl Zanuck had to curtail the distribution of this film; it seems that Fox board chairman Skouros thought the movie to have an anti-immigrant theme. Galleries of posters, production and on-the-set stills accompany a theatrical trailer. An insert flyer contains some production notes and stills -- apparently the entire series has had these notes but Savant's screener copies have not included them.
Another Fox film noir, Elia Kazan's Boomerang!, was supposed to be released at the same time but was held up; Savant heard the rumor (this is a rumor!) that the reason is a defective mastering problem, and not some legal issue that could conceivably hold it up for a long time. Hopefully the superior Boomerang! will catch up with the series shortly.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
House of Strangers rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by film historian Foster Hirsch; galleries of posters, productions stills, unit photography; trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 11, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson