Friday, March 27, 2020

House of Strangers (1949)

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

Edward G. Robinson as Gino Monetti
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.

Hirsch mentioned that Edward G. Robinson almost didn’t take the role because he thought the character of Irene Bennett was unnecessary. Hirsch is quick to agree with Robinson and describes the character of Irene Bennett as decorative. Again, I don’t agree. I think the film would have been odd without her. Irene is one of the few characters (Max’s mother Theresa may be the only other one) who really cares for Max and is concerned about his happiness. The comparisons between Irene and Maria, the woman picked out by Max’s family to marry him, show how Max’s character develops over the course of the film. Irene is the one who shows him, by her love, that he has other options besides continuing the patterns that his father taught him from childhood.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Phoenix (2014)

September 26, 2014 (Germany), July 24, 2015 (United States), release dates
Directed by Christian Petzold
Screenplay by Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki
Based on the novel Le retour des cendres (The Return from the Ashes) by Hubert Monteilhet
Music by Stefan Will
Edited by Bettina Böhler
Cinematography by Hans Fromm

Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz
Ronald Zehrfeld as Johannes “Johnny” Lenz
Nina Kunzendorf as Lene Winter
Michael Maaertens as Arzt
Imogen Kogge as Elisabeth
Felix Römer as Geiger

Distributed by The Match Factory
Produced by Schramm Film, Tempus Film

Phoenix is a powerful film about a German woman’s struggle to rebuild her life, her sense of self, her very identity after surviving a concentration camp in World War II. Many films noir produced in the postwar period, in the 1940s and 1950s, address the dislocation and alienation of returning veterans, but Phoenix addresses the trauma of wartime imprisonment. These extraordinary circumstances have shattered Nelly physically and emotionally, and she can think of only one way to get back her sense of herself.

At the start of the film, Nelly Lenz’s face has already been shattered by a bullet under somewhat mysterious circumstances. It’s hard to know what is true and what is false because Lene Winter, Nelly’s friend, is trying to find the surgeon who will reconstruct Nelly’s face, and she must navigate land that is now occupied by “the enemy,” in other words, the Allied forces.

When the narrative starts, Lene Winter is driving at night, with Nelly in the passenger seat. Nelly’s head is bandaged and bloody. When they are stopped at a roadblock by American soldiers, Lene tells them that she is Swiss, and she has a passport to prove it. The American soldier who questions her doesn’t quite believe her, and he demands to see who she is traveling with. He orders Nelly to take off her bandages, and it’s only when he sees her wounds that he allows the two of them to proceed over a barricaded bridge. The narrative reveals later that Nelly and Lene are German—and Jewish. Once they are past the military checkpoints, however, the two main characters, Nelly and Lena, become reliable narrators. The postwar conditions are still treacherous for them, a continuation of what they endured during the war.

(This blog post about Phoenix contains all the spoilers.)

Lene Winter is a lawyer working for the Jewish Agency to identify the victims of war and the concentration camps. Her position gives her some connections that prove useful after the war. She also helps Nelly through her reconstructive surgery and will help her through the legal process of reclaiming her inheritance. She arranges for both of them to move to Israel so they can start new lives. Nelly has other ideas, however: She wants to find her husband, Johnny Lenz, even though he gave her up and identified her as a Jew to the Germans two days after his arrest. Nelly doesn’t know it yet, but he also divorced her right before her arrest. Lene has a copy of the divorce decree, which she was able to retrieve after Johnny tried to steal it from one of the offices near Lene’s. But she hasn’t told Nelly this bit of information just yet.

Nelly is grasping at any ray of hope, and Lene senses that she must proceed delicately. In fact, Lene and Dr. Bongartz, the plastic surgeon, seem to be the only characters who have Nelly’s best interests at heart. All of her family have been killed, and she is almost completely alone.

After her hospital stay, Nelly moves into Lene’s house. Lene has a housekeeper, Elizabeth, who helps both of them during the transition from war to peace, as it were. But it’s still a dangerous time. Nelly finds this out when she goes out at night to look for Johnny. A blind musician, a violin player, that she meets while he is playing on the street tells her that if her husband is a pianist (Nelly used to sing with Johnny before the war), she should look in the clubs. That is, if he is lucky. If he isn’t lucky, she should look on the street because he might be playing an accordion on a corner somewhere. Nelly doesn’t know any clubs, so the musician tells her to look in the American sector.

The name of the first club that Nelly sees is Phoenix, so the title of the film has many shades of meaning for the narrative. For more information about the myth of the Phoenix, click on each list item below:

Nelly finds Johnny in the Phoenix nightclub and tries to talk to him, but he doesn’t seem to recognize her. She has to return again for a chance to talk to him. He still doesn’t seem to recognize her, but she is determined to go back to her previous life, even though that is impossible and the city has been reduced to rubble. Johnny tells Nelly that she looks a lot like his wife, who he says is dead. He wants her to impersonate Nelly (herself) because he wants to claim Nelly’s inheritance. Right now, he has no proof, no physical evidence, that Nelly is dead, so he wants her to return as a survivor. And because Nelly refuses to give up hope, she agrees to Johnny’s plan. Johnny gives the back room of his apartment to Nelly, and she works on her own handwriting, wearing her own clothes, making herself over to look as she did before the war.

When Nelly tells Lene what she plans to do, Lene is furious. She believes that Johnny is a traitor because he betrayed Nelly to the police. But Nelly isn’t willing to let go of Johnny. She even invents a story that she tells Johnny about how the police followed him to his wife’s hiding place and that is how they found her. She’d rather make excuses for him.

The next time that Nelly returns to Lene’s home, she learns from Elisabeth that Lene has committed suicide. Lene leaves a reference letter for Elisabeth, and Elisabeth gives Nelly an envelope that Lene left for her. In it is the divorce decree: Nelly finally learns that Johnny divorced her before her arrest.

Nelly continues acting out Johnny’s plan. Everything is going as he wishes. She meets him and his family at the train station, and everyone greets her as though she is Nelly, a survivor of the concentration camp returning home. Everything goes as Nelly and Johnny rehearsed it. They go back to a family member’s home, and Nelly invites everyone inside so that she can sing once again to Johnny’s piano accompaniment. She sings the song “Speak Low” in English.

This scene is pivotal, and it is very moving. Johnny recognizes her voice as Nelly’s, and Nelly recognizes the power of her own voice. When she places her hand on the piano, Johnny sees the tattooed numbers from the concentration camp on Nelly’s arm. At this point, Nelly stops singing: She realizes that she has found her own voice, literally and figuratively. The music and Nelly’s singing are contrasted with the silence of Johnny’s family members: They, like Johnny, are stunned by the revelation that no one can ignore any longer. In spite of all that she has experienced, Nelly gathers all her inner strength in this final scene.

The first time that I saw this film, I sometimes thought that Nelly’s character was a bit unbelievable. But on second viewing, it is easier to see how someone can be so powerless, so traumatized, so beaten down, by the horrors that she witnesses inflicted on others and that she experiences for herself. And when all of that comes to an end, her former life is gone. Life is almost as dangerous as it was during the war. The film is worth seeing twice to appreciate the details and how everything interconnects, and to understand how Nelly’s transformation is so miraculous. Like so many films noir from the 1940s and 1950s, Phoenix is really a simple story, with few characters and nothing extraneous, and one in which all the details are important.