Family drama, Italian-American style: House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)


The enduring greatness of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and the flaws in his larger subsequent films Cleopatra and The Barefoot Contessa have left him with a reputation for making staid, dialogue-heavy pictures. I think it would be more fair to say Eve was the peak of his career (as it was for many of the people involved), but many of his films are well worth watching. Between the noir 5 Fingers, gothic melodrama Dragonwyck, and seaside romance The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it’s also wrong to say he couldn’t make a visually interesting film.

Funnily enough, though, House of Strangers is indeed a film that’ll make you feel like someone needs to open a window. In its talkiness and textured set design it bears a resemblance to Eve, despite its dissimilar story. Made just a year earlier, it’s a strong entry from Mankiewicz that makes excellent use of its actors.

Gino Moretti (Edward G. Robinson) is an Italian immigrant who started out as a barber and now owns a bank, but has alienated his family along the way. Of his four sons, lawyer Max (Richard Conte) is the only one he treats with respect. The other three, who all work in the Moretti bank, are displeased with the salaries that their father metes out to them.

The film opens with Max released from prison after serving a seven year sentence. His father has been dead for five years; will Max seek revenge against his double-crossing brothers, as his father would have wanted, or will he leave New York with Irene (Susan Hayward), who has been waiting for him?

Robinson was hardly new to playing Italians, but this one isn’t a gangster. A criminal and a bully, but not a schemer on a grand scale. Gino is simultaneously human and larger-than life, blind to his own flaws. A scene where he insists on playing opera music full blast during dinner is enough to drive the viewer insane, let alone his family, but it’s the kind of tyranny that might seem innocuous to outsiders. It turns out, though, that he’s a traitor to his own community – and sees this as his American right.

Robinson makes full use of his role, and Hayward and the supporting players are quite good, but the film would not work without Conte. Max is a complicated character who has a dark streak, but Conte manages to make him sympathetic. It’s easy to get caught up in the outcome of his decision – and even then, the film just may take his choice away from him.

House of Strangers feels a little long, especially in the scenes involving Max and Irene’s romance. Impressive location filming involving a boxing match and New York streets broadens the film’s scope and helps keep things lively. Nonetheless, a bit of editing at the script level could have kept the story moving along better.

Mankiewicz did not write this film (Philip Yordan wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Jerome Weidman), but it involves plenty of dialogue that the viewer needs to follow closely. As with All About Eve, clever lines are scattered throughout, treated as though they’re of no particular importance. Conte and Hayward also give performances somewhat like Gary Merrill and Bette Davis in Eve. Perhaps Mankiewicz, who did write Eve‘s screenplay and based the main couple on his own parents, directed Conte and Hayward in a similar way.

House of Strangers was remade in 1954 as a western. This film, Broken Lance, did not lack for action or panoramic landscapes, and certainly didn’t feel stuffy. It also made interesting changes, such as increasing the mother role in the story: here played by Katy Jurado, she’s an Indian woman who the local townspeople pretend is Mexican, to give her marriage to Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) a semblance of respectability. Devereaux’s older sons are from an earlier marriage, which puts a twist on the relationship between them and youngest son Joe. The film has fine performances from Jurado, Tracy, and Richard Widmark as one of the older sons. It’s also fun to see how well the story has been adapted into a different genre.

House of Strangers, however, remains a stronger film than Broken Lance. It’s a quality drama with vivid characters, intricate dialogue, and committed performances. It seems to have a throughline to The Godfather, in which Conte also appeared. It’s definitely a must-see if you like Robinson – and I doubt the character of anyone who doesn’t. Another winner from Mankiewicz.


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