Monday, October 31, 2011

House of Strangers (1949)

Manhattan's Lower East Side of the 1930s is the setting for a biblical Jacob and Joseph dynamic in House of Strangers (1949). The plot follows an envious gaggle of  brothers - all of whom work at the family bank - whose tempers flare whenever their father  (Edward G. Robinson) mistreats them and favors only one son - Max.

Max Monetti (Richard Conte), a first generation Italian-American, is torn between the dictates of Old World tradition - marriage and working in the family business - and the scintillating adventures of the New World - represented by a sultry client named Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward).

The brothers have murder on the brain.
The Bowery’s crowded streets and the overstuffed trappings of a nouveau-riche family mansion inhibit Max. In his first scene with Irene, Max paces about in his office almost like a caged animal. He’s looking for escape. Later, Max practically challenges Irene to provide excitement, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his preexisting engagement to the proper woman from the proper family (played by a fetching Debra Paget).
Max and Irene share a moment

With an early 20th century New York setting, familial violence and alternate titles  such as Bitter Fate (Italy),  Hatred Between Brothers (Spain), Blood of My Blood ( Brazil) and House of Hate (Sweden), the film has been compared favorably with the Oscar-winning Godfather (1972) movies. However, House was reproached by the Breen office for its unfavorable portrayal of Italian-Americans. Bosley Crowthers of The New York Times sneers that the film showcases,  "[as] nasty a nest of vipers as ever you're likely to see outside of a gangster picture or maybe a jungle film." The film gets poor press even from it’s director, Joseph Mankiewicz, who declares it simply a “bad picture.”

Despite the negative reviews, yours truly recommends this film as a love story, or a series of love stories, emanating from Max. Should he follow his father- fiercely clinging to tradition, ruling with an iron fist, dabbling into illegal business practices - or should he embrace a less hostile way of life in the arms of his new found love interest? It’s probably a coincidence that the name Irene is derived from the Greek word for peace. Still the lady  brings  much-needed tranquility into the life of an emotionally tortured son.

Further Reading

3 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this one too. (Thank you so much for the link!) Conte's character had an envious problem, choosing between two women who both clearly want him; I also enjoyed Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and his crush on Paget. This is a film which provides a lot of food for thought -- it stuck with me long after "The End" came on the screen.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  2. Really liked your review. The film, as you imply, really does have a kind of Biblical aura in its intense family dynamics - and that's some title the film went under in Sweden!

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  3. Laura,
    Indeed! This movie has plenty of food for thought. You can review it from many different ways - the father enjoying the new country and taking full advantage of it versus the sons feeling a little less appreciative and more entitled; Fiance versus "Other Woman"; New York vs California (the Promised Land for them by the end).


    I think I mentioned to you on twitter that this is the film which completely changed my mind about Susan Hayward's choice of roles. I thought she'd only played in prison films. :)

    Why wasn't House of Strangers a big hit? It's a great film to me with timeless subject matter.

    Grand Old Movies,
    Thank you. Those titles leave you with no doubt that this isn't a Disney film. Get ready for grit. :)

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