Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Valentina Cortese discovers the dark secrets of the “House on Telegraph Hill”

House on Telegraph Hill (1951) is a thriller/suspense film directed by Robert Wise and starring Richard Basehart, Valentina Cortese, and William Lundigan. The film is based on the novel The Frightened Child (1948). The screenplay was written by Elick Moll and Frank Partos. The cinematography was by Lucien Ballard (The Lodger-1944, The Parent Trap-1961, True Grit-1969).

Valentina Cortese and Richard Basehart

A Polish woman named Viktoria Kowalska (Cortese) has lost everything—her husband, her home—during the German occupation of Poland. During her time in the concentration camp at Belsen, she becomes friends with another prisoner, Karin Dernakova (Natasha Lytess) who is desperate to be reunited with her young son Christopher (Gordon Gebert) who was sent to live in San Francisco with Karin’s rich Aunt Sophia.

Karin dies before the camp is liberated and Viktoria sees this as an opportunity for a better life and assumes Karin’s identity. While posing as Karin, Viktoria meets Major Marc Bennett (Lundigan) when the camp is liberated; he helps her get placed in a camp for people displaced by the war. Viktoria continues assuming Karin’s identity and eventually makes it to America and San Francisco. She is romanced by “her” son’s guardian Alan Spencer (Basehart) and agrees to marry him thinking it will be easier for her to stay in America if she marries a citizen.

At first life in the big old mansion with Alan and Christopher is idyllic, but things begin to go south when Christopher’s governess, Margaret (Fay Baker) resents her intrusion on her life with Christopher, whom she has raised since he was an infant and Alan’s increasingly peculiar behavior.

Has Karin walked into a situation worse than the one she escaped in Poland?

Robert Wise (1914 - 2000) was an American director, producer, and editor. Wise began his movie career at RKO as a sound and music editor. For several years, he worked with senior editor William Hamilton. Wise’s first solo film editing credits were on Bachelor Mother (1939) and My Favorite Wife (1940). He was the film editor on Citizen Kane and was nominated for an Academy Award for Film Editing. Wise got his chance to direct at RKO from Val Lewton, the producer of horror classics like Cat People (1942). The Curse of the Cat People (1944) was the first film that Wise received director credit for. He eventually directed films noir, westerns, melodramas, and science fiction. Some popular films directed by Wise include The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Executive Suite (1954), I Want to Live! (1958), which earned Wise his first Oscar nomination for Best Director. He went on to win Best Director Oscars for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).

Richard Basehart (1914 - 1984) was an American actor who worked steadily in film and television. Basehart starred in several films noirs of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He also had a lead role in director Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954). Other film roles include Moby Dick (1956), Decision Before Dawn (1951), The Brothers Karamazov (1958). Baby Boomers would remember Basehart as Admiral Harriman Nelson on Irwin Allen’s science fiction television series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964 -1968).

Valentina Cortese (1923 - 2019) was an Italian actress. She graduated from the Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome and began her film career in Italian films in 1940. She starred as Fantine and Cosette in an Italian production of Les Miserables (1948). In Europe, she worked with all the top directors including Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Francois Truffaut. She signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox and made several American films including Thieves Highway (1949), House on Telegraph Hill (1951), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973).

William Lundigan (1914 - 1975) was an American film actor. Lundigan started working in film in 1937. He had film contracts with Universal, Warner Brothers, M-G-M, and 20th Century-Fox. Some of the over 125 films he appeared in include The Old Maid (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Santa Fe Trail (1940), The Courtship of Andy Hardy (1942), Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942), Pinky (1949), Love Nest (1951), I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (1951), and Inferno (1953).

House on Telegraph Hill trivia
  • Valentina Cortese and Richard Basehart met on the set of the film and married the year the film was released.
  • The runaway car scene was shot partly on location in the Telegraph Hill area of San Francisco.
  • Julius Castle, a restaurant on Telegraph Hill, was dressed to look like the mansion that belonged to Aunt Sophia.
  • Actors considered for the Richard Basehart role included James Mason, Hugh Marlowe, Richard Widmark, Dana Andrews, John Lund, and Richard Conte.

Why watch this film?
  • It represents a film early in the career of director Robert Wise.
  • The performances of Richard Basehart and Valentina Cortese are worth watching.
  • It’s one of the few American films Cortese starred in.
  • The film features great production values from the classic studio era.

To watch the film on YouTube, click the link below.

To join the discussion on July 12, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. Central Time, click here. Once you RSVP, you’ll receive an invitation with a link to the meeting on Zoom.

Questions for discussion
  1. Many critics consider this movie a film noir. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. What did you think of the performances of Valentina Cortese and Richard Basehart?
  3. Did anything about the film surprise you?
  4. Was the ending satisfying to you?
  5. Did the movie remind you of any other films you’ve seen?

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