June 30, 1949, release date
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by Phillip Yordan
Based on I’ll Never Go There Any More by Jerome Weidman
Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof
Edited by Harmon Jones
Cinematography by Milton R. Krasner
Susan Hayward as Irene Bennett
Richard Conte as Max Monetti
Luther Adler as Joe Monetti, the oldest brother
Paul Valentine as Pietro Monetti
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., as Tony Monetti
Debra Paget as Maria Domenico
Hope Emerson as Helena Domenico
Esther Minciotti as Theresa Monetti, wife of Gino Monetti
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox-Film Corporation
Produced by Twentieth Century Fox-Film Corporation
House of Strangers is the story of the Monetti family patriarch Gino and his four sons. It’s really more accurate to say that it is the story of Max Monetti and his father Gino and his brothers, but Gino is almost as important to the story as Max is. The film starts with Max, and he is the one who goes through a transformation in character as a result of all that he experiences.
After the opening credits, the film starts with an overhead shot of a busy outdoor street market in an Italian neighborhood of New York City. It’s a crowded urban setting with an overhead el in the near background. The film then cuts to street level and to Max Monetti maneuvering through the crowded sidewalk. He stops at a bank building whose façade is etched with “Monetti Trust & Loan Association.” He visits his brothers in their bank offices, but not before security alerts the brothers and an officer frisks Max. It’s already obvious that this will be a story full of tension and fraternal conflict. It is, in fact, a story of sibling rivalry, betrayal, murder, and greed.
At the time of Max’s visit to his brothers, Gino, the father, has already been dead five years. Theresa, their mother, is back living on Mulberry Street in the crowded tenement that Gino always wanted to escape. Max’s brothers want to pay him off with a thousand dollars, but he won’t take the money or anything else from them. But he does tell them that he wants his seven years back.
After his visit with his brothers, Max Monetti goes to a luxury high-rise apartment. He lets himself in with a key that he finds under a vase on the mantel in the hallway. He wanders the apartment; he makes himself at home and takes a shower. Irene Bennett comes home and knows that it’s Max in the shower from the clothes that he left in the bedroom. Instead of being angry or frightened, she is thrilled that he’s back. But it isn’t long before they argue about Max’s need for vengeance, and it is revealed that Max was in jail for seven years—the seven years that he feels he is missing from his life.
Max leaves Irene’s apartment and goes back to the “big house,” the family home. He still has a key for this residence, and he lets himself in. He cranks up a record player and listens to opera under his father’s portrait hanging in the living room. The camera then tracks up the interior stairs of the house, and when it pans into a flashback, viewers see Gino Monetti bathing in a tub and singing opera. Joe, one of the brothers, comes in to remind his father to get to the bank for the start of the workday. Gino says that the depositors can wait and makes his son scrub his back. Much of the remainder of the film is told in flashback, starting from the camera tracking up the staircase of the Monetti home.
Gino Monetti arrived in the United States a poor barber and remade his life by building up the Monetti Trust & Loan Association. He becomes a respected man with wealth and influence. And none feel his influence more than his four sons: Max, Joe, Anthony, and Pietro. Max is a lawyer and the favorite son, and he enjoys some independence because of his occupation. But his father’s influence is felt by all four sons. Joe, Anthony, and Pietro are more directly under their father’s thumb because they work, in different capacities, for their father in his bank.
Max is a lawyer with an office inside the Monetti Trust & Loan Association. Irene Bennett walks into his office one day unannounced, which is how they meet. The firm of Hanford, Sloan and Elliott recommended Max to her. Max knows a thing or two about the firm because he used to work there. He tells Irene that the people there recommend only low-class clients. When she pulls out a cigarette, Max makes her light it herself. Their conversation is filled with acid one-liners. Max often ends his speech saying, “Period.” It’s a habit that comes up between the two of them throughout the film. Irene hires Max to clean up a friend’s debts, debts that this friend owes to her. Max doesn’t want the work, but she insists. Before Max accepts the assignment, he insists that Irene say, “Please,” and she does. In spite of Max’s poor treatment of her, Irene starts an affair with him.
The dialogue between Max Monetti and Irene Bennett in House of Strangers reminds me of another Richard Conte film: New York Confidential. Richard Conte’s character in that film, Nick Magellan, also has a penchant for witty dialogue. Click here for my blog post about New York Confidential.
(This blog post about House of Strangers contains spoilers.)
Joe, Anthony, and Pietro are almost afraid of their father and do anything that he says. Maria is Max’s girl, but Anthony (Tony) is the one who dotes on her. On one particular Wednesday when Max arrives for dinner, Irene Bennett calls for him, and he leaves without eating. He also leaves Maria in Tony’s care. In spite of his rather poor treatment of her, and even after he’s seen around town with Irene, Maria still insists on marrying Max.
Gino Monetti doesn’t keep accurate records and loses his bank when bank inspectors close it. The local people with accounts in the bank turn on Monetti and become an angry mob, attacking him outside the bank building. Gino recuperates in his bedroom at home, where Max arrives after spending a lot of time checking bank records. He tells Gino that he is accused of a felony called “misapplication of funds.” Half the transactions have not been recorded over the years. Gino could be indicted on twenty-two counts, and each count carries a one-year sentence.
Joe, Pietro, and Tony turn on their father: He has always treated them badly, and he never shared the decision making with them. They don’t want to accept any responsibility for what their father has done. When their mother enters the bedroom, Max says, “You’re just in time, Ma. Did you know you brought up a houseful of strangers?” Gino orders Joe, Pietro, and Tony out of his bedroom; Max is the only son who remains behind.
Max is his father’s defense lawyer when his father’s trial begins. Max visits one of the jurors, a single mother with children. He wants to convince her to vote for his father’s innocence, but she won’t listen to Max and won’t take his money, and she asks him to leave. Out on the street, Max is arrested for jury tampering. Joe must have betrayed Max: He’s the only one that Max told of his plan. In fact, Max went to the juror’s tenement apartment only because Joe refused to go when Max asked him.
After the trial and Max’s imprisonment, Joe takes over Gino’s bank. Gino visits Max in prison and tells him that Joe must have ratted on him. When Gino dies while Max is in prison, Max is given a pass to go to the wake at the family home, where threatens revenge. Their mother is distraught: Now she has no husband and no sons.
Back now to the present: Max is sitting in the chair in his parents’ living room, and he starts talking to his father’s portrait about revenge on his brothers. It reminded me of a soliloquy from a Greek tragedy. Max states that he could steal Maria back from Tony (Tony and Maria married after Max was imprisoned). He could create a scandal at the bank and have Joe indicted. Elaine would leave Joe, and Pietro would lose his job at the bank. Pietro and Joe would have nothing else. And Max wouldn’t need to waste any more time on Pietro because he has always been a dumbhead, a name Gino Monetti always used for his son.
But Max continues: He won’t hold onto his anger any more. He calls Irene, who is ready to leave for San Francisco. She agrees to come to the old Monetti family home and pick up Max. Max tell her to come faster, period.
Joe, Tony, and Pietro show up at the house before Irene arrives. Joe sets Pietro on Max, and Pietro beats Max and carries Max up the stairs, on Joe’s orders. Joe is in the lead, Pietro follows with Max on his shoulders, and Tony is the last in line. Joe’s speech as they make their way up the stairs:
Just because you’ve been in jail, you think you’re tough. ’Cause I sit in a bank all day, you think I’m soft. We were both born on Mulberry Street. I can be tough too. One thing the old man taught me—never give a guy a chance. When you got him down, don’t press your luck. Finish him. You don’t have to fight the same guy twice. In some ways, the old man was right.
Joe learned his father’s lessons well. Gino Monetti was always a tyrant to his family members and he was ruthless in business. Joe may hate his father, but he is just like him. Joe wants Pietro to throw Max over the balcony railing and kill him, but when Joe calls Pietro dumbhead, Pietro lets Max’s body slide off his shoulders and goes after Joe, trying to choke him at the railing. Max regains consciousness and tries to stop Pietro. Anthony does nothing; in fact, there is a shot of him looking pleased that Pietro has turned on Joe. Max finally convinces Pietro to stop; he tells Pietro he is not a dumbhead and that he is smart enough not to do Joe’s bidding now and Pa’s bidding from the past.
The DVD that I watched came with audio commentary by Foster Hirsch, and he provided some interesting observations and background information for the film. But I disagreed with him on a couple of points. According to Hirsch, House of Strangers is a film noir crossed with caustic romantic comedy. That term, caustic romantic comedy, doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think there’s any comedy in the relationship between Max and Irene. I could appreciate the crackling dialogue between them, especially when they first meet. But I never once mistook their interactions for comedy.
I listened to Hirsch’s audio commentary on the DVD for Daisy Kenyon, another film noir. In my blog post about Daisy Kenyon, I also devoted a couple of paragraphs to Hirsch’s commentary because I disagreed with some of his points about that film, too, specifically with regard to women and his observations about women and female characters. Click here for my blog post about Daisy Kenyon.