As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, former producer at MGM, where Louis B. Mayer called him Joe Monkeybitch, became a top director at Fox, and his films there are spectacularly well-represented on streaming services today, along with Ford and Preminger, but one exception seems to be House of Strangers, his 1949 noir saga starring Richard Conte, Susan Hayward, and Edward G. Robinson.
It's an unusual genre to find the urbane Mankiewicz dirtying his hands with. Robinson's presence is a throwback to the pre-Code gangland epics of Warner Bros., while the unusually foregrounded Italian-American aspect (which does not avoid spaghetti-and-opera clichés, indeed seems to steer straight for them) and Conte's muscular performance look ahead to the Godfather trilogy. Where Mankiewicz finds conducive material is in the heightened, indirect, pictorial language of the late noirs, so that the dialogue, adapted by the prolific Philip Yordan from a small portion of Jerome Weidman's novel (Weidman later co-scripted The Damned Don't Cry), but with a substantial, uncredited makeover by Mank himself, as usual, giving the best lines to the smartest characters, as was his custom. "If I am remembered at all," the auteur reflected, "it will be as the swine who rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald's dialogue... but Scott Fitzgerald's dialogue was childish."
The dialogue here is at times overripe. Conte knows what to do with it: sling it away, casually, as if his mind's elsewhere, dealing with the next thought, not the current words. On Hayward's lips, it sometimes descends (or ascends?) into camp, because she's an actor who relishes everything, from words to co-stars to costumes to scenery. Some of the best stuff in the film is their preposterously overwritten dalliance:
Her: "You know, you don't really talk to people, you cross-examine them."
Him: "I'm a lawyer. Me, you get facts. Sympathy you get from doctors and relatives."
Her: "I don't want sympathy from anybody."
Him: "Don't worry, you're not likely to get it."
Him: "You like to get hurt. Always picking the wrong guy. That's a sickness with a lot of women. Always looking for a new way to get hurt from a new man. Get smart, there hasn't been a new man since Adam."
When the dialogue soars, the film reels with hard-boiled delirium. The photography of Milton Krasner, who shot Lang's Robinson-Bennett-Duryea diptych, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, shows no interest in jagged shadows or acute angles, but has a starkness of composition and lighting that adapts the usual Mankiewicz manner—elegant, matter-of-fact—into something cool, tense and distant.
Robinson is Gino Monetti, the monstrous patriarch/banker with a stereotypical Italian accent he can't quite handle ("Shaddap!"); Conte is his favorite son, the lawyer, whose affair with Hayward threatens his status while his three brothers, regularly humiliated by pop, scheme in the background. It's a family saga whose gangster aspect is illusionary: little violence outside the boxing ring, the only crime is of a strictly financial nature, unless being a terrible person is a crime.
Son: "I don't wanna stick my neck out."
Father: "Why? What's so good about your neck?"
Robinson and Mankiewicz both have some trouble with the bad dad character, Robinson with the thick accent (in the days before dialogue coaches, actors relied on their powers of mimicry and often reached for the broadest of brushes), Mankiewicz with the character's childish, primitive nature. The script even wants us to believe that Monetti's monetary misdeeds all stem from his fundamental innocence: he's crooked because he doesn't understand money. With no guile and every emotion loudly on the surface, the figure offers nothing for Mankiewicz to play with, whereas son Max is so slathered in sophistication he's a stranger to himself.
Him: "Me, Max Monetti. Period."
Her: "That'll make a fine epitaph. 'Here lies Max Monetti. Period.'"
So, though the film in on sense demonstrates the limits of Mankiewicz's worldview—he can't do dumb—it also shows his flexibility, his ability to bend his style into different forms and speak in different voices. It's incredible to think he'd just made A Letter to Three Wives. What he's done is find a visual approach for noir that, for once, isn't an incitement to violence: he creates the hostile environment where hate blooms, the violence almost entirely contained within the characters' outlines.