Joseph L. Mankiewicz will always hold the prestige of a writer over a director and yet working off a script by Phillip Yordan, he guides the picture with an assured hand. House of Strangers manages to be intermittently stylish and deeply evocative highlighted by fiery performances. Ironically, it begins like a good many of his most well-known works with an extensive flashback.
It stems from a story that has deeply familiar roots in the American experience full of the old vs. new world dichotomy, immigrant lives, love, and hate. The expansive Italian family rendered so memorably in The Godfather films comes to mind most plainly and there’s little doubt House of Strangers sows some of the same seeds cropping up again over 20 years later in Coppola’s classic.
Thematically, it’s about a culture that is extremely family-oriented but also hierarchical. It’s right there in the title. With how he runs his household, Gino Manetti (Edward G. Robinson) has tended a “house of strangers” by picking favorites and alienating his other sons. They are tired of constantly being ridiculed and doing his bidding, while their ambitious brother Max (Richard Conte) gets their father’s full attention, going so far as to herald his upcoming marriage to his sweetheart (Debra Paget). The other Manettis never get such fanfare.
As might be expected within this context, the story relies on powerhouse performances and Robinson is astoundingly effectual as the patriarch. It never really feels as if he’s playing at something (the same cannot be said of Hope Emerson unfortunately) but he takes on the persona of someone who does only what they see fit to do. His mode of thinking and acting is very straightforward. There’s nothing diplomatic about his dealings and that garners him many friends but also plenty of ill feelings.
Joe (Luther Adler), the oldest Minneti brother, is discontent with the way his father takes him for granted, keeping him as a bank teller with little responsibility in the family business. He’s worried about his image with his wife and the neighborhood. Their father’s favoritism only makes it worse.
Then, there’s Pietro (George Valentine) the brawny brother who doesn’t have the greatest brains and so his father keeps him on as a security guard. The boy’s also been moonlighting in the boxing ring but he receives his father’s disdain for having a soft belly. So he’s got his own burning grudge, that and the fact Gino is always making him change the records at family dinners. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is the pushover and it’s easy for dad to keep him in his place.
In a sequence that could almost be plucked out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank is closed down in the throes of The Depression and there are riots in the streets broken up by the police force. But in the aftermath, Gino is put on trial for his loose business practices that more than likely bent numerous federal regulations. He never did care much for them.
If his sons were behind him it would be easy enough to beat the rap but with only Max in his corner, it becomes an increasingly strenuous battle. In the end, the beloved son shields his father but ends up being disbarred and served a prison sentence for jury tampering.
Waiting for him on the outside is the former client that he’s come to love, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), and out of love she confronts the old man and berates him for what he has unwittingly done to his sons, worst of all Max. Hayward’s performance is poised, at first sultry and then full of fight as she battles for what’s hers. She’s one strong woman in what seems a sea of benevolent ones.
The inevitable finally happens and Gino dies but he has left behind residual bitterness that still seethes between the siblings. The other three remain jealous of Max’s hallowed place at their father’s right hand and he sees their takeover of their father’s bank as seditious.
Conte seems often criminally underappreciated and best-remembered as a casualty of Michael Corleone. But do a survey of his career and you realize how crucial he was to the film noir movement serving up a versatility that found him in sympathetic roles as well as villainous turns running the gamut from Call Northside 777 (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Whirlpool (1949) to Cry of The City (1948) and The Big Combo (1955).
On a side note, this picture would once again briefly pair Conte with Debra Paget romantically though, oddly, she was only about 16 at the time. The studio’s executives must have seen something…
However, with House of Strangers Conte straddles the line between most of his other roles. Ruthless when he needs to be, capable of a grudge even, and still generally affectionate of the ones he loves. It’s arguably his most far-ranging and nuanced performance of the whole lot and he does a sterling job.
Because to drag The Godfather comparison out further, if Robinson is Vito, in some regards, the most prominent figure in the film, then Conte’s Max is Michael, the son who soon comes into his own and becomes the new center. He owns the picture just as Pacino ultimately became emblematic of The Godfather as a dynasty.
The repercussions of brother pitted against brother are evident. The forces of their father are still working on them almost unconsciously now. It’s been built into how they perceive family. But in a single shining moment, Max wrenches his clan out of this self-destructive horror that their dear old departed dad seemingly cultivated. Instead, he lays the foundation for something more substantive even if the healing comes in incremental baby steps.
Old habits die hard but that doesn’t mean they can’t be eradicated…Maybe. More importantly, he hears the impatient honk of that same horn out on the adjoining street. He’s still got his girl. The film’s happy ending deserves a noirish asterisk. Some amount of loss must come with any gain.