Noir Nook: New-to-Me Noir – The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
One of the many things that helped sustain me throughout the more-than-year-long COVID-19 shutdown was participating in a weekly classic movie Meetup. Each week, we were assigned a classic film to watch, and then we gathered via Zoom to discuss it. Recently, we were assigned The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), starring Richard Basehart, Valentina Cortese, and William Lundigan. This feature was one of the few noirs that I’d never seen; when I saw that 20th Century Fox logo at the start of the film, my expectations were high – and I’m pleased to say that they were met.
Cortese plays Viktoria Kowelska, who we first meet when she is imprisoned in Germany’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II. Viktoria has befriended one of her fellow captives, Karin Dernakova (Natasha Lytess), whose young son was sent to America to live with a wealthy aunt. Viktoria is protective of her weakening friend, but despite her efforts, Karin dies and when the opportunity presents itself, Viktoria assumes Karin’s identity. Although she later learns that Karin’s aunt has died, Viktoria eventually travels to New York and presents herself as the mother of Karin’s son, Chris (Gordon Gerbert), and meets the boy’s appointed guardian, Alan Spender (Basehart). Alan quickly falls for Viktoria, and after a whirlwind courtship, she agrees to marry him, fully aware that the union will further solidify her place in America. Alan takes his new bride to San Francisco, where she meets her “son” and his longtime governess, Margaret (Fay Baker), but once Viktoria settles with this motley crew into the family mansion on Telegraph Hill, she finds that she’s gotten more than she bargained for.
The red flags start popping up immediately. Why doesn’t Alan want to sleep with his wife on their first night in their San Francisco home? What kind of relationship does the governess have with Alan? What’s the deal with the playhouse that Chris isn’t allowed to play in? And what’s in the photo album that Margaret doesn’t want Viktoria to see? The film doles out its secrets like pieces of candy and you’ll eat them up!
The House on Telegraph Hill is available for viewing (for free!) on YouTube – if you’ve never seen it, check it out and let me know what you think! And in the meantime, enjoy the following trivia tidbits about the film . . .
Telegraph Hill was ably directed by Robert Wise, whose noir pedigree includes such gems as Born to Kill (1947), The Set-Up (1949), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Wise was nothing if not versatile – he also helmed West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).
The real Karin was played by Natasha Lytess, who appeared in only a handful of feature films, but was better known as the acting coach for Marilyn Monroe from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. It’s said that after every take on the 1950 noir The Asphalt Jungle, Marilyn looked to the ever-present Lytess for approval or disapproval of her performance; reportedly you can see one of these glances at the very end of Monroe’s first scene in the movie. Lytess died of cancer in May 1963, less than a year after the death of Monroe. (You can also see Lytess on YouTube, in a clip from the popular quiz show What’s My Line, on which she appeared as a contestant.)
Valentina Cortese and Richard Basehart first met during the filming of this feature and were married the same year of its release, 1951. The union lasted nine years.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction (now known as Best Production Design); it lost to A Streetcar Named Desire.
A local San Francisco restaurant, Julius’ Castle, built in 1922, was used as the exterior of the house in the film. A façade was built around parts of the structure to hide certain elements, such as the name of the restaurant. The restaurant closed in 2008 and was put up for sale; the current owner hopes to reopen the restaurant by the end of 2021.
Take a trip to 1950s San Francisco and visit the House on Telegraph Hill. You’ll be glad you did.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here: