Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 5, 2012
There have been many instances where a famous director has two films released in the same year, with one becoming famous while the other exists in its shadow, half-remembered and never glorified. It’s happened enough times that I could probably make a whole post out of it and maybe one day I will. There was John Huston who, in 1951, released The African Queen and The Red Badge of Courage. One of those, The African Queen, became an instant classic. The other, The Red Badge of Courage, was hacked to bits by the studio and still managed to be superb. If you get a chance to watch it, you won’t be disappointed. Then there was Francis Ford Coppola who, in 1974, gave the world The Godfather, Part II and The Conversation. I don’t think I have to tell you what happened with the first. A ton of Oscars and a regular spot on the Sight and Sound poll. The Conversation? Praised by many as the better film but, oddly, not a standard of Sight and Sound at all. And then there’s Robert Wise, discussed on these pages many times and who, in 1951, thrust The Day the Earth Stood Still upon the world. With a flying saucer in the nation’s capital, an unstoppable robot and the legendary directive, “Klaatu barada nikto,” it’s a hard film to steal the spotlight from if you’re the second film on the bill. But it just so happens that as much as I love sci-fi and Gort, I like the second film better. It’s The House on Telegraph Hill and it’s Robert Wise’s other film from 1951.
The House on Telegraph Hill plays in flashback though, structurally, there’s absolutely no reason for it. The flashback, as it were, exists only because the movie opens with a shot of the titular house itself in the present while Victoria Kowelska (Valentina Cortese) narrates about her house in Warsaw “eleven years earlier and 7,000 miles away” (in 1939) and how it was destroyed by the Germans. They also killed her husband and she ended up in Belsen (aka, the notorious Bergen-Belsen), herded in with thousands of the dead and dying. As the “flashback” starts here and works its way linearly straight through to the end without interruption by a return to the present, there is absolutely no reason for the flashback outside of the opportunity to have Cortese, and her wonderful voice, narrate the film but even that is abandoned early on. Call it the laziest flashback in movie history but the movie doesn’t suffer for it.
Instead, the story takes an intriguing turn early on. Victoria’s friend in Belsen, Karin Dernakova (Natasha Lytess), had an infant son, Chris, smuggled out of Poland in 1939 to her wealthy Aunt Sophie in San Francisco. Victoria helps Karin all she can but Karin is sick and getting worse by the day. She tells Victoria that when they are liberated she will take Victoria to America with her and they will both live with her aunt, who hasn’t seen Karin since she was a little girl. Just days before liberation, Karin dies and Victoria, distraught at both the loss of her friend and her chance for a better life, decides to become Karin. After all, Karin’s son was only an infant when he was smuggled out so it would be impossible for him to recognize her and even Karin’s Aunt Sophie would have no idea what Karin looked like as an adult (besides, Karin and Victoria had similar builds and faces). With the temptation too great to resist, Victoria becomes Karin and the dead woman on the floor of Belsen becomes Victoria.
The plan seems like a good one until after the camp is liberated (when she meets Major Bennett, played by William Lundigan, who will pop up later in the movie) and Victoria/Karin writes to Sophie only to receive a letter back saying Sophie has died and that there are no living relatives left. You see, it has also been reported that Karin died so Victoria is suspected of being an imposter which, of course, she is. Determined to keep the legacy of Karin alive and care for her son (as well as live the good life), Victoria presses on and four years later, in 1949, she finally gets a place on a refugee ship and heads for America. She heads straight for the lawyers handling the estate and goes head to head with Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), related to Sophie by marriage, who has been made the guardian of Karin’s son, Chris. She convinces Alan that she is, indeed, Karin and the two begin a relationship which quickly leads to marriage.
The two leave New York and head back to the house on Telegraph Hill where Karin/Victoria meets Chris, who believes she is his mother, and Margaret (Fay Baker), the governess Alan has hired to do the actual child-rearing. The four live together in an uneasy mix that has Karin/Victoria suspicious that Alan and Margaret are in love and that Chris is in danger. When she discovers an old playhouse of Chris’ that has been severely damaged by an explosion, her suspicions deepen. Other accidents happen until Karin/Victoria believes she is the next victim but is it real or is she imagining the whole thing? Is Alan out to kill her or is Margaret? Or both? Or perhaps neither and Karin/Victoria is simply paranoid. As the evidence mounts, Karin/Victoria has to figure out a way to save herself and Chris, if they’re really in any danger at all.
Of course, I’ve only brought you up to speed on the first developments of the movie. Where it goes after that I won’t say as The House on Telegraph Hill is a film with surprising and satisfying plot turns that I’d rather not reveal to the inaugural viewer. I also like it better than The Day the Earth Stood Still. More importantly than that, I think it’s the better movie of the two. Certainly Richard Basehart’s performance alone is worth big points right there but the casting of Valentina Cortese is also inspired. Her beautiful and wonderful voice makes every line she utters stick and she plays a calculating imposter with such genuine kindness and sympathy that you never dislike her or root against her for a moment. The Day the Earth Stood Still also has two great leads in Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal so I’m not trying to compare apples to oranges here (and really, the two movies couldn’t be more different), simply to say that I like The House on Telegraph Hill better for what it is, a noir thriller, than The Day the Earth Stood Still for what it is, a cerebral sci-fi morality tale. But we all know which movie won that battle.
Throughout Hollywood history, directors have had some movies achieve great success while another movie, made at roughly the same time, disappears over the horizon. Time usually cements such choices into place. Some directors, like Steven Spielberg, seem immune to the problem. He released both Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same year and one swept the Oscars while the other swept the box office. But he’s an exception. In many other cases, one movie gets catapulted to the top while the other gets shoved into its shadow. That happened with Robert Wise in 1951 and while I certainly wouldn’t shove The Day the Earth Stood Still in any movie’s shadow, I think The House on Telegraph Hill deserves a little more light than it’s gotten.
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