Like many of the directors of his day and age, Robert Wise cut his teeth on noirish material on his way up the industry totem pole toward more prestigious projects. House on Telegraph Hill supplants a Belsen Concentration Camp survivor named Karin Dernakova (Valentina Cortese) who emigrates to San Francisco on the prospect of a better life.
This might have felt like a very prevalent narrative in a post-war world, but what makes her story unique is her secret: She’s not actually Karin Dernakova. Her real name is Victoria Kowalska but her feeble friend Karin shares the hope of her distant relatives in America. Although Karin doesn’t live to see it, in a moment of decision, Victoria decides to don the life of her friend. It’s a risk but one she is willing to take as it promises more than she would ever have otherwise.
The Allied liberators are decent, enlightened people who handle her with a human touch. They aren’t looking to find her out, instead intent on helping her assimilate back into society. Her first stop is a displaced person’s camp and then her relatives who live in San Francisco.
Richard Basehart is one of the men watching over the assets of her late “aunt.” In fact, he’s a little more closely involved as guardian of a child and his estate. The lady she was meant to stay with is dead, and her young son doesn’t remember his mother very well; Alan does what he can to make her feel welcome. The attraction between them is also of convenience to her as she’s driven by fear and a desire to realize her American dreams. Ultimately, they get wed.
As House of Telegraph Hill settles and finds itself as it were, what becomes apparent are these varied strands coming together. Because it shares elements we see in innumerable films of the same period. The first is the gothic home and the woman in danger noir. At first, it’s not altogether explicit, but there’s an eery sense about the place.
An imperious portrait of a deceased relative sits prominently in the middle of the parlor. There’s something slightly unnerving about it like it might somehow catch her in the lie. Likewise, their governess Margaret (Fay Baker) is built out of the Ms. Danvers prototype, making Karin feel thoroughly unwelcome in her own home. Though this is the undercurrent of the entire movie, isn’t it? It actually isn’t hers to have.
There is this general sense of unease bubbling up from the surface from any number of nooks and crannies. Although Rebecca is a better mood piece and its actors are probably more prominent in their evocations, House on Telegraph Hill not only has an illusory housekeeper and a specter of a proprietress but also a man of the house with dubious intentions.
In order to offset the perceived menace, there must be an escape valve and Marc Bennet (William Lundigan) is just the man. Although Alan is reproachful of his old school chum, he has the kind of good-hearted, easy charm to provide Karin with a much-needed ally — someone to let her know she is not crazy. For that matter, there’s her son, and Gordon Gebert is just about one of the best child actors of the era if we’re basing our criteria solely on spunky adorableness. Playing baseball with his mother is one of the most humanizing activities you might imagine for a young boy.
This general malaise displaces the hope and prosperity brought on by the end of the war and happiness is extinguished by this unnerving sense of unease. It seems the horrors of the Holocaust are given a very real form and expression. We have a paranoia-filled framework perfect for a noirish tale of distress brimming with psychological torment and underlining duress.
There’s a mysterious drop-off in the rickety old playhouse caused by a sudden explosion, and later faulty breaks causing her car to careen violently through the hills. Somehow she survives, and it feels like it could all be an illusion — not just back projections of a studio lot — but also a manifestation of the pervasive mania she finds herself stricken by.
Basehart doesn’t necessarily have a cushy headliner role. Still, he’s good at playing bad with his charming manner and dashing good looks. And yet this becomes a glorious noir portrayal because it provides such a contradictory projection of truth and falsehoods that we must reconcile as an audience alongside Cortese. In other words, the ominous scoring says one thing, while his demeanor says another. We’re always kept in this state of uncertainty. It doesn’t help since we have the contradiction of the budding love affair between Basheart and Cortese in real life.
In Suspicion, Hitchcock was forced to pull Cary Grant away from the brink and if there is one thing in this picture’s favor, it’s that we can still have our villain. True, it resorts to wildly histrionic melodrama in its final moments, stewing in all its gothic glory. There are strings and drums pounding away, as orange juice, not milk, is ingested. If it’s not altogether satisfying, at least it delivers on the kind of cinematic delirium we expect from a movie like this, wearing all its many facets right on its sleeve.