In 1949, the soon-to-be Hollywood dignitary Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would win 4 Oscars within two consecutive years (2 for directing and 2 for writing), knocks out two features, while A LETTER TO THREE WIVES takes all the spotlight in January (and the paycheck is Mr. Mankiewicz’s first two Oscars, a full-year after), HOUSE OF STRANGERS, released five months later after its debut in Cannes, is ill-fatedly pigeonholed and regarded as a trou normand before the advent of his unqualified pièce de résistance ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), garnering another 2 naked golden statuettes for the champ.
Based on Phillip Yordan’s novel I’LL NEVER GO THERE ANY MORE, the film is a studio-bound feud within the Monetti family, the patriarch Gino (Robinson) is an Italian banker in the East Side of New York, who starts his enterprise from scratch, begets four sons and his druthers is the second-born Max (Conte), who is a lawyer by vocation, whereas the other three work for the family bank.
The film starts on the day Max is released from prison after a 7-year stint, bays for blood after an altercation with his brothers and rebuffs the proposition to start anew in San Francisco with his old flame Irene Bennett (Hayward),at that point Gino has already been pushing up daisies. Then the flashback prompts to dwell on the familial tension from its initial stage, how Gino’s preferential disposition detrimentally splinters his family into the titular "house of strangers" and causes deep rift when the family bank clashes with government investigation, and the story cogently flags up the capitalistic avarice, posits Gino as an usurious tyrant squeezing pecuniary gain out of the have-nots. Max is the only son who is spoiling for extricating Gino from the legal mire, but he is hoisted by his own petard when he tries to bribe a juror while his eldest brother Joe (Adler) has already secretly shopped him, that costs him a good 7-year and now he is back for vendetta, implanted by a vengeful Gino before his demise, can the ominous fratricide be averted in the eleventh hour?
Edward G. Robinson meritoriously won the BEST ACTOR trophy in Cannes and here his pompous mien writs large through the most compelling register, his Gino is an unrepentant egoist, a terrible father, paternalistic and uncouth, sticks to the value of family and tradition but has no clue that poison has already been interjecting into his progeny through their upbringing: the wicked, the spoiled, the dumb and the craven, here is the Monetti Quartet.
Max, played by a shifty-looking Richard Conte, is at first, nothing less repugnant than his magisterial father (both have the dastardly proclivity for laying their hands on women when confronted, can Mr. Robinson vanquishes a towering Hope Emerson in real life? The odds are not good on him!), but he is bestowed with a redeeming factor that he is the most upstanding one among the offspring to deserve a brighter future, but bemusing still, Max’s final change-of-mind is cavalierly oversimplified. Susan Hayward, whose star was rising at then, channels a femme-fatale mystique on top of Irene's lonesome dame cliché, and Luther Adler, nearly upstages the rest with hisfiendishly self-seeking turn as the nefarious Joe.
Honestly, HOUSE OF STRANGERS is a gripping tale at large under Mr.Mankiewicz’s proficient supervision, on the technical level, it is as good as any top-drawer monochromatic studio fare of that time, only the shady nuts-and-bolts of the doctrinaire story take the shine off the outstanding teamwork.
referential points:Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ALL ABOUT EVE (1950, 9.3/10), SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959, 7.4/10),CLEOPATRA (1963, 6.3/10).