The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

She's a paranoid woman but she's not alone.  They are all over film noir, and not just in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951).

She's got plenty company, including the heroines of Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Gaslight (1944), Experiment Perilous (1944), Dark Waters (1944), The Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Sleep My Love (1948) and Caught (1948)

Paranoid Woman Film Noirs tend to suffer from a similar set-up: a woman moves to a dream home, often in the company of a newly-married but shifty male.  

In the new house, the paranoid woman spends a lot of time in the bed with the covers pulled up to her neck, while shapes tap against the window.  Generally, she is under the illusion that somebody is trying to kill her, and generally it is not an illusion!  Everyone else is sure she's mad, and does their best to convince her of this.

Is she as crazy as she thinks she is ... or is she as crazy as everyone else thinks she is?  These are some of the essential questions of film noir.

Valentina Cortese in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
Valentina Cortese in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

The dream homes of the film noir paranoid woman sub-genre are usually expressionist nightmares of architecture, more like the House of Usher than a house of marital bliss.  Think of the awful pile in the swamp in Dark Waters (1944) and the gothic weirdness of the mansion in Secret Beyond the Door (1947).  All these houses are strange, and so are their occupants.  In such films there is usually a scornful or resentful governess in residence, and there is one also in The House on Telegraph Hill.

Valentina Cortese in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
One View from Telegraph Hill

Valentina Cortese in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
Another view from Telegraph Hill

In this strange cycle of melodramas, the paranoid women also enter these houses as sufferers.  In Dark Waters, Merle Oberon enters the spooky house in the swamp as the traumatised survivor of a German U-Boat attack.  

In contrast and in The House on Telegraph Hill, Valentina Cortese has been released from Belsen concentration camp and has spent four years in transit, with no nationaity or background to speak of.  She doesn't arrive on Telegraph Hill as a complete innocent, however.  She has her own deceits and secrets, which must also be worked out in the course of the movie.

Directed by Robert Wise and starring Valentina Cortese, Richard Basehart, William Lundigan and Fay Baker, The House on Telegraph Hill isn't on everybody's must-see list of film noirs.  In fact I musta seen every contentious and predictable list o' classic film noirs on the internet and The House on Telegraph Hill ain't on one of them.

Valentina Cortese in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
Bed time can be fatal for paranoid women

The House on Telegraph Hill has good noir credentials however and not just in the paranoid woman set-up; the two leads are both imposters who are in one sense living a suburban dream, but of course it's all more of a nightmare of lies, deception and posioned orange juice.  

William Lundigan in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
William Lundigan: Liar Liar

Richard Basehart in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
Richard Basehart: Pants on Fire

There is a scornful governess in the form of Fay Baker and the fake-father-figure Alan has a friend who has motivations that also aren't 100% bona fide.  Damn it all, the only square guy in this is the kid!

You Can Trust the Kid

The House on Telegraph Hill starts with some scenes in a hastily reconstructed vision of Bergen Belsen concentration camp.  It is in this starving Polish nightmare of pain and bad ladies who fight over food, that our heroine Karin hatches her plot, which is to come to America and be a lady of leisure in a black frock, living high on the hog, on Telegraph Hill.

From Nazi Nightmare ....

... to American Dream.

When she gets to her dream home however, Karin blows it in the viewer's eyes because she is much more excited to see her new house than she is the poor little military wannabe that she is pretending is her long lost son.  Telegraph Hill is every paranoid woman's dream, with its chandeliers, spooky funriture, tall vases and gilt framed portraits of dead family members. And so she gets suckered straight into the American dream, which as every paranoid woman knows, is bad, bad news.

Although Telegraph Hill is a real place, this house never existed and is painted on to the print.  The strangest view of both San Francisco and the house comes from the hole in the bottom of the shed, which is probaby the most fascinating image in the movie.  This hole literally represents the ground upon which you stand being shaky and collapsing beneath you, and as you can see it is remarkably well framed.

The Hole in the Shed in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

Of personal interest, Richard Basehart and the Italian actress Valentina Cortese met for the first time on this film, and fell in love and married.

The House on Telegraph Hill is generally considered pretty slow going these days, but it does have some interesting stuff in it, like the concentration camp scenes, and the great photography of San Francisco.  As well as that it is a classic of the sub-genre known as the paranoid women film, and of all the film noirs out there, The House on Telegraph Hill is one which shows San Francisco at its best.

Valentina Cortese in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
Slow Going on Telegraph Hill?

No comments:

Post a Comment