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HOUSE OF STRANGERS (director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenwriters: from the book I’ll Never Go There Any More by Jerome Weidman/Philip Yordan; cinematographer: Milton Krasner; editor: Harmon Jones; music: Daniele Amfitheatrof; cast: 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), Esther Minciotti (Theresa Monetti), Diana Douglas (Elaine Monetti), Tito Vuolo (Lucca); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sol C. Siegel; 20th Century Fox; 1949)
“Superb performances by Conte, Robinson, and Adler lift the ordinary dramatics into loftier territory.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Joseph L. Mankiewicz stylishly helms the dark screenplay by Philip Yordan of Jerome Weidman’s novel I’ll Never Go Home Any More. It was reworked five years later as the Western Broken Lance. Mankiewicz tells a melodramatic revenge story of a patriarchal Italian-American banker family and their falling out and becoming filled with hatred. Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) rose from poverty to riches the old-fashioned way by hard work. He started out in a one-room apartment in Little Italy’s Mulberry Street and with his loyal old-fashioned Italian wife Theresa ran an independent bank in his old neighborhood and raised four sons (all of whom work with him in the bank). Dad’s favorite son Max (Richard Conte) was the smartest and became a lawyer, the others he treated as inferiors and never showed them any love. Joe (Luther Adler) is the oldest and the married man is promised that he will inherit the bank upon his father’s death, but is disappointed that his father pays him such a low wage as a teller that he can’t afford to raise a family in his two-room apartment. Pietro (Paul Valentine) is hired as a security guard and resents being constantly called a dumb-head by his dad, while the youngest son Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is also verbally abused and has a low position in the bank.

The film opens when Max gets out of prison after serving a seven year stretch for jury tampering at his father’s trial over illegal banking practices, where the father’s crime was that he charged exorbitant interest rates for giving no collateral loans and collected all the assets from his poor clients when they couldn’t pay. Max was the only son to remain loyal to pop during the trial, as the resentful brothers not only refused to help their dad stay out of prison but ratted Max out. To avoid prison Gino turns over the bank to his wife, but she turns it over to his implacable three sons. Under Joe’s leadership the three sons cause their father’s death by removing him permanently from the bank. Max promised his embittered father he will exact a revenge on the traitors when released from prison, and this seems to be the case when he meets his concerned brothers in the bank and declares in a hostile voice “Vengeance is a sweet wine.”

An extended flashback follows allowing Gino to make a grand stand entrance, his first time on camera, while descending the stairs of his mansion, as Max contemplates what his father was like. Max brings back memories of his father listening to a Rossini aria at the dinner table and berating his three sons and reveals the elegance of the ‘big house’ they lived in as the camera, excellently handled for details and contrasting shades of light and dark by Milton Krasner, takes us on a tour of the spacious rooms. The flashback also traces back to Max’s engagement with nice old-fashioned Italian girl Maria, whom his father approved of, and how Max met the chic San Francisco Wasp society woman Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward) and dumped Maria onto Tony’s lap as he pursued the more modern woman.

Following his father’s adage that this is a “dog eat dog world” and “when you have your foe down, make sure he doesn’t get up to fight you another day,” Joe has his ex-prizefighter brother Pietro try to beat Max to death. But when Pietro seems reluctant to carry out the order after pummeling Max, Joe mistakenly calls Pietro a dumb-head in the same tone his father used. Pietro turns on Joe, but Max prevents him from doing further damage and leaves his brothers for the loving arms of a waiting Irene.

It’s a bitter psychological family drama that focuses on hatred as the family’s driving force instead of love. Max is the ambivalent hero, the only one in the film who is a true film noir character, who is punished for being loyal to his father yet is someone who has rejected the ways of the old-country and its traditionalism for the ethics of the New World. Superb performances by Conte, Robinson, and Adler lift the ordinary dramatics into loftier territory.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”