Tuesday, March 9, 2010

#43: House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)

Released: July 1, 1949

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Screenplay: Philip Yordan and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (uncredited) based on the novel “I’ll Never Go There Anymore by Jerome Weidman; Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner; Music: Daniele Amfiththeatrof; Producer: Sol C. Siegel; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Edward G. Robinson (Gino Monetti), Susan Hayward (Irene Bennett), Richard Conte (Max Monetti), Luther Adler (Joe Monetti), Paul Valentine (Pietro Monetti), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Tony Monetti), Debra Paget (Maria Domenico), Hope Emerson (Helena Domenico)

- “Get smart, there hasn't been a ‘new man’ since Adam…”

House of Strangers is a sleeper, I think. It’s the type of movie that everyone recognizes as being well made – I’ve yet to come across anyone who has watched it and did not like the movie to some degree. Yet, it is not commonly listed as being considered with the best of film noir. That’s unfortunate, because I don’t hesitate to place this highly in such a countdown. In the able hands of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and boasting a bevy of big name talent, it is another prime example of how effortlessly the studio system could churn out outstanding dramas. This is one of my favorite releases to emerge from 20th Century Fox in the 1940s.

The story is like a The Godfather in reverse. Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) is a barber who immigrated to New York from Italy, setting up shop on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. Through sheer determination and hard work, Gino manages to accumulate enough funds to start a local bank that he singlehandedly runs and controls. Paying no attention to banking regulations and legal technicalities, Gino runs things on a whim, loaning money to whomever he pleases and demanding whatever interest he deems sufficient. The bank brings the Monetti family previously unimaginable wealth and Gino grows into a domineering patriarch, raising four sons that he completely dominates. All four sons grow to work in Gino’s bank – Joe (Luther Adler), Pietro (Paul Valentine), and Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) as bank employees; favorite Max (Richard Conte) keeping his law office inside the family building. Gino continually declares that he has built this banking empire for his sons to inherit, but until his death he treats everyone but Max horribly. All three of the sons that work directly for him detest him, unable to bear his insults, low pay, and general disregard. So when bank regulators swoop in and begin inspecting the books of the business, the trio is all too glad to see Gino forced out of the banking business. In a hostile takeover, they assume control of the bank, while rival brother Max is hauled off to prison on jury tampering charges while trying to keep Gino out of jail. The film actually opens with Max’s release from prison and an uneasy reunion with his brothers. The story that brought them to that tense reunion is then remembered by Max when he returns to the family home.

Like the best Joseph Mankiewicz films, the strongest asset (outside of typically strong writing) is the ability to have the entire cast pull their weight. Each performance eventually becomes strong enough to contend with the domineering Gino Monetti. Perhaps there is some stereotyping in his performance of the immigrant Gino, but Edward G. Robinson does shine in the role. He really is a powerhouse, dominating every scene he is in – which is precisely how it should be with the personality of Gino Monetti. It is very interesting to watch the progression of the character and track how you as the viewer respond to him. For the first half of the film, he is overbearing, a man who treats everyone with complete contempt. Compassion is instantly felt for the sons who can do nothing to please him. But when the government begins coming for him, and everyone but Max refuses to help their father, he seems a bit more sympathetic as he explains to his sons why he has treated them the way that he has. As he talks about how he has built the business up so he can one day hand it over to them, it seems genuine. In a final analysis, it is likely that Gino means what he is saying, but is too insecure to let this happen until it is too late.

Richard Conte and Susan Hayward also work very well together, giving Max and Irene a fiery relationship. Richard Conte has far too many outstanding roles in his career for this to be considered his best, but it’s still incredibly strong. Really, this is just an all around, well-made 40s major studio noir. It should be obvious now that I’ve recently become a big Joseph Mankiewicz fan and think that it’s unfortunate that many folks don’t go beyond All About Eve and a few select others in his filmography. Outside of that all-time classic, this is probably the best that I’ve seen from him, which is a high compliment considering he made a number of great films in the 40s and 50s.


  1. David,

    I watched this about a year or so ago, and started to do a review and stopped. I needed to see it again and so far have not. It’s an interesting family drama about immigrants and the American success story. Gino’s banking skills are probably a carry over from the “old country.” He does not see anything wrong with what he does as far a banking practices, which I am sure did not exist in the old world and especially with the poor. He built an empire the only way he knew and became a success, ah America!

    There are similarities to “The Godfather” though I think that has more to do with capturing the environment than copying. Of course, Richard Conte is in both films also makes a connection. True there is some stereotyping but I can forgive that since the story is so engrossing and the acting is superb. A nice one David!

  2. As I recall, Dave, Richard Conte was not your typical noir anti-hero, but more of a consumate professional, instead of the typical anti-hero of the traditional noir. But this is certainly Conte's moment in the sun. This Learish narrative, which you astutely liken to a "Godfather in reverse" does showcase Edward G. Robinson in what must surely be considered one of his best performances- he's theatrical in a good way, and he's fluid in Italian too. And Susan hayward is a convincing incarnation of the femme fatale.

    As you point out, Mankiewicz is adept at helming films with superlative dialogue, and the hard-boiled variety here does work quite well, and he paints a vivid picture - with the outstanding complicity of accomplished lensman Milton R. Krasner - of the immigrant experience. This 40's entry, in this sense, predicts more contemporary works, and doesn't embrace the stereotypes of nonetheless excellent films like LITTLE CAESAR and SCARFACE. The violentending here seems unecessary, but it's a minor quibble.

    Daniele Amfiththeatrof's music seems derivative, but it's still effective here as an atmospheric underpinning. I regret not including this film in my runners-up list for 1949, hence I do agree with you that when one thinks of Mankiewicz, one too often equates his cinematic accomplishment to ALL ABOUT EVE. This riveting noir does showcase his strongest attributes, while providing audiences with an exceedingly entertaining feature.

    Excellent choice, and a review of exhaustive expertise!

  3. It looks like its just the three of us here lately, John and Sam, but things are humming right along. I agree with both of you that this is just an all-around great film.... more Mankiewicz storytelling which is top notch.

  4. Wow, it looks there are so many noirs that I have yet to see. I'm gonna be VERY busy after LOST is over May 23, lol... Thanks for the heads-up, Dave.

  5. Susan Hayward was one of my favorites actresses in that time, her movies were always fun to watch.

  6. I think it is one of the best and more cool movies, the plot is good, for instance The brothers conspire to send Max to jail as well. Max tries to bribe a juror to save his father, but gets disbarred and serves a stretch of seven years in prison.

  7. Nice movie, I actually watched a few weeks ago with my grandfather, it was some grandpa and grandson time.