Have you ever planned to murder your husband or your wife? Me neither. I’m not married anyway. But that’s the type of conspiracy we saw more than once in the “wonderful world of cinema” and it’s not about to stop. However, as creepy as it may sound, this is the type of ambitions that can make a film strangely entertaining. Alfred Hitchcock, of course, was a master at that type of films with movies like Notorious or Dial M for Murder, but he was not the only one to excel at delivering us those thrilling husband vs. wife misadventures. Theresa Brown from CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch is hosting the ‘Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon which explores this type of movies. I’m glad to take part of it with my own review of The House on Telegraph Hill, a 1951 movie directed by Mr. Versatile Director: Robert Wise, and starring Valentina Cortese, Richard Basehart, William Ludingan and Fay Baker.
By the way, I didn’t remember how great this film was before re-watching it for the blogathon. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, please do so.
Also, before going further, it’s my duty to tell you that this article will include major spoilers since I’ll be talking about it from A to Z.
Where is Telegraph Hill? And where is this house at the heart of the story? In San Francisco, but everything starts in Poland during the Second World War. A woman’s voice-over introduces her own story to us from the first minutes of the film. She is Victoria Kowelska (Valentia Cortese). She has lost her husband during the war and her house has been destroyed by the Germans. She was deported to a concentration camp in Belsen. There, she met Karin Dernakova (Natasha Lytess) with whom she became great friends. Unfortunately, due to her poor health, Karin eventually died in the camp. To her great sorrow, Victoria has lost a good friend, but this situation was a way for her to have a better life. She knew that Karin has a son who lives with her rich aunt Sophia in San Francisco. So, she decided to take Karin’s papers and renounced her own identity.
When the camp is finally liberated, Victoria (now Karin) is questioned by Major Marc Bennett (William Lundigan), an American. The poor woman bursts into tears during the interview. Is it because she is presenting herself under a false identity? Is it because she is thinking of the horrors of the camp and the loss of her friend Karin? Probably both. Fortunately, Major Bennett is a kind man and tempts to reassure her. When Victoria leaves his office, he makes her notice that she has forgotten something. It’s her own passport. She tells the major that this passport belonged to her friend Victoria (who is, in fact, herself), but now that she is dead, she doesn’t need it anymore. So, Victoria tears it in two and definitely loses her real identity.
Victoria is then deported to a camp for persons displaced by the war where she communicates with Aunt Sophia. A cold answer comes a few days after: aunt Sophia is dead. The poor Victoria sees her dreams of going to America fading away, but her ambition is still there. Four years after she received the letter, Victoria manages to travel to New-York, where she makes the acquaintance of Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), Christopher’s guardian and a distant relative of aunt Sophia. It doesn’t take long for both of them to be charmed by each other and eventually get married. They moved to San Francisco to the house on Telegraph Hill, where Victoria finally makes the acquaintance of Karin’s son, Christopher (Gordon Gebert). But, now, she is the one who has to play the role of his mother. The moment where they first see each other is at first a bit awkward for both of them because, 1- Christopher hasn’t seen his mom in 9 years (when she send him to the US, he was just a baby) and 2- Victoria knows she is not Christopher’s real mom. Fortunately, our protagonist has a maternal instinct and they won’t take long before getting to know each other better and truly appreciate each other.
Karin now lives in a beautiful mansion and wears gowns to make every woman with good tastes jealous. Those were designed by Renié, and are the pure definition of elegance. She has a new husband whom she loves very much and lives a wealthy life.
However, Victoria’s new happiness is only a brief illusion. Even since the first night in her new home, we can feel a certain discomfort. Like many people in a new and unknown place, she has difficulty sleeping, despite being in a much more comfortable place than a concentration camp.
But this is normal no? I mean, who wouldn’t have trouble sleeping in such a situation? After having lived such events?
The real obstacle that is placed in Victoria’s way is Margaret (Fay Baker), Christopher’s governess. There’s something about this film that can make us think a bit of Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940): Victoria marries a man she barely knows, they move to a beautiful mansion and she has to face a jealous domestic, Margaret that is. From her first on-screen minutes, we feel the cold tone of her voice and guess she isn’t particularly happy having Karin (Victoria) intruding her life. As she was the one who took care of Christopher during 9 years and not Karin, it is obvious that she feels like a mother to him. Tired of Margaret’s opposition to her, Victoria fires her, but Alan reasons her explaining that she can’t fire someone who worked for them for 9 years just like that. Victoria realizes her mistake and Margaret remains part of the house. After offering her apologies to Victoria, she somehow becomes a more agreeable person (but she doesn’t smile very much so she keeps that ounce of creepiness).
One afternoon, Victoria discovers something rather odd. While she is playing baseball with Chris (who now treats her like a real mother) the ball gets lost in the grass and Victoria goes after it. She arrives next to a little playhouse with broken windows. Victoria is intrigued, but Chris begs her not to go inside as it is a dangerous place. Victoria, too curious, doesn’t listen to him and enters. The chaos that she finds there has nothing very attractive and the place is, indeed, a dangerous one. There is a big hole in a part of the floor and a part of the wall and whoever might step into it would fall in the streets of San Francisco from a great height. Chris explains to her “mother” that this hole was caused by an explosion from his chemistry set. Victoria to talk about it with Alan, but Chris begs her not to tell him as he apparently doesn’t know. Later, she talks about it with Margaret, who doesn’t see either the purpose of talking about it with Alan since the boy was not hurt during the explosion.
During the evening, the Spender receive guesses at their house, one of them being Major Mark Bennett. Recognizing him, Victoria first tries to hide in order to avoid an awkward situation. When she doesn’t have the choice to face him, Mark recognizes her but is not 100% sure who she is. She refreshes his memory and finally realises that she has nothing to be afraid of and can enjoy an evening in his company.
Later, Victoria returns to the playhouse and it’s there that everything changes for good. She investigates the place when she is surprised by Alan. He wonders what she is doing here with a smile on his face, but this is exactly a pleasant smile. He makes a step toward her, she steps back, with fear in her eyes, and fall in the hole. Luckily, Alan catches her in time. From this moment, Victoria’s attitude toward Alan changes: she is afraid of him and always seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Not long after, Victoria is supposed to go to town with Chris. This one finally can go as he has to finish cleaning his room. So, Victoria goes alone. While she is going down a street, she wants to brake, but realises that the brakes aren’t working. Then starts a furious stroll in the streets of San Francisco similar to the one in Hitchcock’s Family Plot. Victoria manages to stop the car by bumping in a pile of sand. She is physically not hurt, but mentally it is different. When she realises that Chris was supposed to be in the car with her, a reasoning is quickly made in her head: Alan wants her and Chris to be dead. Why? Because he’ll be the one inheriting aunt Sophia’s money.
She talks about it with Mark, but this one doesn’t think Alan is a murdered, despite not liking him very much. They, however, start their investigation, but, each time Victoria tries to reach Mark (to whom she has finally revealed her own identity), it seems that Alan is in her way. Without revealing it out loud, we know that he knows that she knows. However, he still continues to play the game of the worried husband.
A log is added to the fire of suspicion when Victoria discovers an article about aunt Sophie’s death in Margaret’s scrapbook. She realizes that she received that telegram announcing her death actually three days BEFORE the real date of her death. It is obvious to her that Alan got rid of aunt Sophia with his own head, in order to access fastly to the fortune.
But is Victoria right? Could sweet face Alan Spender really be a murderer? Is she only imagining things like Lina (Joan Fontaine) in Suspicion? Well, unfortunately, she has it right from A to Z. And this slowly leads us to the thrilling ending of this film.
During the “last supper” Victoria is tense since she hasn’t managed to reach Mark all day (she was always surprised by Alan). She can’t eat a thing so she decides to go to the office to read. She is soon followed by Alan, who seems decided to watch her. When they go to bed, Alan prepares their usual before-bedtime glass of orange juice. However, Victoria hears him putting something in her glass. Is it poison? She asks Alan to go take her book in the library which he does, and she takes the occasion to call the police. Unfortunately, as the phone in the library is off the hook, she is unable to make a call. From the library, Alan listens to her “help!” with an evil smile on his face.
When Alan comes back to the bedroom and realizes Victoria hasn’t drunk her orange juice, he convinces her to do so. They finally drink their respective glass of juice by looking at each other in the eyes. That is a very tense moment in the film. Knowing that his wife is now about to die (because yes, he DID put something in the juice), he confesses the murders and the reason, which was, indeed, money. He tells her that he has put a whole box of sedatives in her orange juice in order to kill her. Panicked, Victoria begs him to call a doctor, but not for her: for him! While he was in the library, she put her orange juice in the pitcher and put in her glass what was initially the pitcher. So, Alan is the one who drank the juice full of sedatives. Alan is not feeling well and goes to Margaret. Victoria is looking for Chris (whom she thinks has been “kidnapped” by Margaret, who has always menaced to take him with her). She finds him yes, with Margaret, but they still are in the house. He is sleeping in Margaret’s bedroom and she is taking care of him. Alan claims that Victoria tried to kill him, but with a ton a panic, she has to convince Margaret that he wanted to kill her. Alan begs the governess to call a doctor, but, when she realises that he tried to kill Christopher too, she doesn’t call him. Margaret and Alan, who were lovers, were supposed to get rid of the family to live a rich life together, but let him kill Chris? That is something Margaret would never have allowed.
Without a doctor, Alan can’t do much for his life so he dies. When the police investigate, it is discovered that Margaret never called a doctor so she is arrested for murder. Poor Margaret! Victoria and Mark, who know that she has somehow nothing to do with Alan’s death offers all the help they can to get her out of this mess.
Victoria now has nothing to do anymore in the house on Telegraph Hill. So, with her only suitcase in hand, she leaves the house with Chris and Mark in order to finally begin, we hope, a somehow normal life.
It is not really surprising that Alan should be the victim of his own crimes. In the Production Code Era, a murderer had to be punished. However, the real surprise eventually resides in the way he becomes the victim. Clever little Victoria!
From 1951 to 1960, Italian actress Valentina Cortese and Richard Basehart were married. They fell in love while filming this film. Despite playing opponents, we seize their beautiful chemistry in the film. It is really because of Richard Basehart that I first decided to watch The House on Telegraph Hill since he was an actor that has always intrigued me. No regrets. As the villain with a calm temperament, he is quite different from the nervous and suicidal Robert Cosick from 14 Hours! Valentina Cortese is an actress all in elegance who delivers a convincing performance. Her chemistry with William Lundigan is the definition of friendship and make their moments together highly appreciated.
The House on Telegraph Hill is not a so well-known film, but it deserves more recognition. It has a dose of suspense that many will appreciate.
A big thanks to Theresa for hosting this blogathon! I invite you to check the other entries. The link will be live on July 24th!