Turning the Tables – Rediscovering ‘The House on Telegraph Hill’ (US 1951 – 93 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - June 01, 2015
Turning the Tables – Rediscovering ‘The House on Telegraph Hill’ (US 1951 – 93 mins)

The use of flashback storytelling in movies is not one that gets used a lot these days, but back in the 1940’s and 50’s this style of filmmaking was quite popular, especially in the noir and thriller genres. Of course ‘Citizen Kane’ (’41) may be the most famous flashback movie of all, while Otto Preminger’s ‘Laura’ (’44) remains one of my favourites. But another movie that used this style well was the San Francisco set melodrama ‘The House on Telegraph Hill’, a compelling tale of deception and murder.

Widowed concentration camp inmate Victoria Kopwelska (Valentina Cortese) dreams of a new life in America. When her friend and fellow inmate Karin dies shortly before liberation, Victoria assumes her identity knowing that Karin’s young son Christopher was sent to live in San Francisco with his aunt. Arriving in America with false papers Victoria (now “Karin”) learns that Karin’s aunt has died and the estate has been left to Christopher. “Karin” devises a plan to romance Christopher’s legal guardian Alan (Richard Basehart), marry him and worm her way into her son’s life. However, the boys scheming governess Margaret (Fay Baker) is jealous of “Karin” and soon several attempts are made on Victoria’s life, causing her to believe that Margaret and Alan had actually killed Karin and are now plotting to do away with her, leaving the pair to inherit the whole estate.

Based on Dana Lyon’s 1948 novel “The Frightened Child” ‘The House on Telegraph Hill’ has some nicely tense moments including a very realistic set-piece featuring a runaway car hurtling down the familiar San Francisco highway, and Alan’s attempted poisoning of Victoria, using her nightly glass of orange juice.

The B-list cast are all on form here, especially serious looking Richard Basehart who does a convincing job as the husband, and would later score a hit in Italy when he played “the Fool” in Federico Fellini’s acclaimed drama ‘La Strada’ (‘54). Italian actress Valentina Cortese was very good as Victoria and would marry co-star Basehart shortly after filming. Cortese’s other notable movies included a supporting role in ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ (’54) and Fellini’s 1965 fantasy ‘Juliet of the Spirits’. Fay baker had one of her best roles as the jealous Margaret, and familiar second lead William Lundigan is fine as an attorney who befriends Victoria.

Director Robert Wise would have a massive hit this same year when he made the superb Sci-fi classic ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, before winning Oscars for both ‘West Side Story’ (’60) and ‘The Sound of Music’ (’65). One of Wise’s most popular movies is the fantastic chiller ‘The Haunting’ (’63) which remains a cult favourite for many movie buffs. The excellent black & white photography was by award-winning cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Often working with Sam Peckinpah, Ballard also photographed Stanley Kubrick’s gripping racetrack heist movie ‘The Killing’ (’56).

A nifty thriller full of mystery and intrigue, ‘The House on Telegraph Hill’ is a complex noir featuring winning performances and genuine suspense. It does drag in places but the story is so captivating that you don’t really notice. Even though it contains nods to much better movies such as Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’ (’40) and ‘Suspicion’ (’41), this ‘woman in peril’ feature still contains enough entertainment to warrant rediscovery.

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