A young Barzini, Laura Holt's Dad, more familiar betrayal than a Royal Family picnic, Mulberry Street residents that aren’t Rat People, a lasagna-loving horse killer, and a Sicilian meah, see?
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Headed by patriarch Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson), the Monetti clan runs a prosperous bank in 1930s New York. Second eldest son Max Monetti (Richard Conte) returns home after a seven-year stint in prison. His three brothers - sinister Joe, dim-witted Pietro, and slick Tony - are less than enthused and treat him coldly. It quickly becomes apparent that the brothers had something to do with sending him to the big house, and Max drafts a plan for revenge. He reunites with a former flame, the sultry Irene (Susan Hayward) who has faithfully waited for him for years. She wants to fly the coop together and escape the inevitable bloodshed that awaits, but Max is driven with a vendetta against his brothers who committed a so-far nameless crime against him. He returns to his boyhood home, looks up at a portrait of his father, and sits down to listen to one of Gino’s opera records. The movie flashes back to the time before Max went to prison. Gino runs his banks with an iron fist, lends money to the residents of the bowery hobbled with exorbitant interest while maintaining a firm grip on his four sons who run the bank. Max was second in charge, the only son with a college education and a law degree. Joe was the hapless office manager, Pietro the security guard and glass-jawed prize fighter, and Tony the sleazy shyster slacker. Each of his sons disappoints him in some way or another, except for Max the favorite, and he earns their resentment and fear with his persistent verbal abuse. When Gino’s loosey-goosey accounting practices gets him and the bank into hot water, Max rises to his defense, but when the foxy Irene enters his life and distracts him from his engagement, his career, and his family, big trouble brews. The three humiliated brothers take full advantage of the investigation by setting up Max and stripping Gino’s control from the bank. But the favorite son returns to avenge his father and himself, and not even a hot-blooded dame or a pasta pot full of cash will stop him.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz is best known for his Oscar-winning movies Letter to Three Wives and the amazing All About Eve. But in between these two classic films he made House of Strangers, a very loose translation of King Lear and a noir-ish melodrama dealing with family themes such as favoritism, loyalty, and betrayal. The great Robinson chews up the scenery and the spaghetti with his trademark gusto. Conte is excellent as the loyal son whose love for his father becomes his downfall. I haven’t seen much of Susan Hayward before, but to me she seems like a fusion of two other film noir babes Gloria Grahame and Rita Hayworth. Although she shows little skin and screeches hysterically at times, she shares a sizzling chemistry with Conte that takes up the first part of the film. Other than sloppy accounting, there is no hard crime at the core of the movie; instead it explores the moral crimes of degradation, disrespect, and disloyalty within the family. Gino is not an evil man; he’s just torn between his love for his favorite son and his inability to see beyond the flaws of his lesser sons. In the end, he pays for this character flaw and when Max tries to make up for it, he is confronted by the awful truth that sometimes revenge isn’t enough. House of Strangers is a little long and slow in parts, but it’s well worth a watch.You just gotta get past Robinson’s goofy Mario-ish Italian accent. Mama-meah, see?!
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