#Noirvember: “House of Strangers” (1949) starring Edward G. Robinson, Susan Hayward, and Richard Conte

After serving 7 yrs in prison, NYC-raised lawyer Max Monetti (Richard Conte), goes to the bank run by his brothers Joe, Tony and Pietro. He promises to revenge them. Next, he visits his lover, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), who asks him to forget the past and start a new life in San Fran. In flashback, we see Max’s life in the early ’30s. He was the favorite son of his father, Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson), who had a small bank in Little Italy on the Lower East Side (LES). Gino is an egotistical/self-made Italian immigrant who ruled over his family like a tyrant. Max was a competent lawyer engaged to a young woman, Maria Domenico (Debra Paget). Max meets Irene when she comes to him for legal help; they have a LOT of spark, but their love affair is troubled. The new Banking Act takes effect in 1933, and Gino is investigated by the feds for misapplication of funds. Max forms plan to help his father…

Max [to Irene]: Always looking for a new way to get hurt from a new man. Get smart, there hasn’t been a new man since Adam.

This is a film noir that is also a dysfunctional family drama (how appropriate for the holidays- LOL)! If you are an immigrant or a 1st gen American, you MAY esp. relate to this movie. It’s a BIT of a mixed bag, though it has some (timeless) themes and (mostly) good acting. The character of Gino Monetti is loosely based on Amadeo P. Giannini (1870-1949), founder of the Bank of Italy, which became the Bank of America. According to articles from the entertainment press in March of 1948, Victor Mature was to be cast as Max. This film reunites Conte, Paget, and Hope Emerson who appeared in Cry of the City (1948)- a V fine movie. Of course, MANY of you will know Robinson and Paget from The Ten Commandments (1956).

I like watching Conte (discovered by John Garfield and Elia Kazan); he has a challenging role here. No offense to the fans of Mature, BUT Conte is a stronger actor. Max (who sometimes operates in the “gray areas”) has to decided btwn the “good girl” (virgin) from his neighborhood and the mature/WASP “temptress” (experienced w/ men). Conte and Hayward play off each other well; they have a sort of combative energy. Now, are there some stereotypes in this story? Yes, though we classic movie fans are aware this can be the case sometimes. People of Italian heritage were considered “exotic” in the 1940s; Hollywood (for many decades) did NOT create subtle characters who were ethnic (or racial) minorities. Some (modern) viewers couldn’t get over the accent used by Robinson, his pencil-thin mustache, and mannerisms.

Max: Pa, have you read the new banking act?

Gino: I don’t even read the old one. Why?

There was also drama behind-the-scenes (BTS) of this movie. According to the biography of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (People Will Talk), the producer (Sol Siegel) hired Philip Yordan to adapt Joseph Weidman’s novel (I’ll Never Go Home Again) for the screen. After Yordan submitted 3/4 of the script, Siegel decided that it was unacceptable, fired him, and asked Mankiewicz to redo the script. Mankiewicz rewrote ALL of Yordan’s dialogue, reshaping the script. The Screen Writers Guild ruled that Yordan receive sole story credit and he and Mankiewicz share credit for the screenplay. Mankiewicz refused to share credit for a screenplay he had basically written, so received NO credit. The studio remade House of Strangers in 1954 as a western- Broken Lance (starring Spencer Tracy as the patriarch). Yordan was given credit for the story and won the Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. Yordan was also front for many screenwriters blacklisted in the ’50s.

[1] The acting is this film is nothing short of fantastic. Robinson is perfect as the dictatorial, ruthless Gino. Conte is totally believable as the favorite son – efficient and slightly to the right of slimy. Luther Adler gives a brilliant performance as the henpecked Tony. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Susan Hayward plays Max’s love interest, a woman who gives as good as she gets. She looks sensational and does a terrific job in her role. Stardom is right around the corner for her, and it’s no surprise.

[2] …a great story of hatred and forgiveness. Edward G. Robinson has one of his best performances (if not the best) and wins the Best Actor award in the 1949 Cannes Film Festival. Richard Conte has one of his best roles (if not the best) in his well-succeeded career. Susan Hayward is very beautiful and elegant and performs a strong female character.

[3] I said it was an adult movie… The characters are ambiguous, as people in real life would be. In some ways, for instance, Pa is a lovable old patriarch, but he’s also monstrously insensitive to the feelings of others. And the murderous resentment of the older kids is made understandable too. And Richard Conte’s character is aggressive and domineering at the beginning, just as a spoiled youngster might be, but he develops into a Mensch by the end of the tale. Hayward develops too…

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews


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