REVIEW: House of Strangers [1949]

“The name we hope to live down”

I never expected to be as entertained as I was after watching Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s very well-acted House of Strangers. It is a story of familial bonds and the blood, sweat, and tears that go into raising a family; how money and power can easily usurp the intrinsic necessity of love. Patriarch Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson in a fantastic role toeing the line of Italian caricature, but never going over) came to America with his wife and lived in a one-bedroom flat above a barbershop, working 16-hour days, 7 days a week to support her and their four young boys. He knew what it was like to be poor and he built his bank and fortune from that poverty. Refusing to use collateral in order to lend money—yet all for charging big interest—he helped the community based on their character. Taking a chance on his neighbors, many began their lives in direct result of his charity. You could even say he treated strangers better than his own, always putting his sons in their place, never giving them anything in order to teach them the lessons he learned the hard way.

But when you take a closer look at this seemingly affable man, bursting into Italian song or ‘making a mistake’ giving a woman more money than asked when needing a loan to pay the hospital, you begin to see through the façade at the selfish man beneath. Gino Monetti lives for only Gino Monetti. He has lifted himself up to God-like status in the community, and no matter how much he tells his family he did it all for them, it was really for the power—to control all those in his grasp. Because of this, his eldest son Joe (Luther Adler) feels slighted, always insulted and relegated to his weekly pittance in the cage, told he will inherit it all; pretty-boy Tony (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is mocked for his weakness, called effeminate, and never treated like a man; and the youngest, but also strongest, Pietro (Paul Valentine) is called dumb-head over and over in hopes to make him cease boxing and learn something new to be successful. Gino thinks his tough love is leading them to become their own men, but the lessons fall on deaf ears instead, harboring only hatred and indifference to the man who raised them.

Well, all but Max of course. Max (Richard Conte) is just like his father. He decided to take his own path, never letting the family business define him, becoming a successful attorney and a man able to stand tall and talk to Gino by commanding the same respect his father did of him. As a result, his brothers hated him too as he took all affections of the man that left them to slaughter. So when fortunes turned and the government indicted Gino for fraudulent banking practices and unlawful lending, the family becomes strangers, blood bonds dissolved. Those Gino helped demand their money, unable to show the compassion he gave when they needed it most, and his sons walk away, biding time until they’d take over the bank while he went to jail. The only person left to stand by is Max, the only boy who truly believed his father stewarded him to become the great success he had. But we in the audience know better. We see just how alike the two men are, filled with ego, power-hungry, and stubborn to those in their way.

The House of Strangers of the title is therefore a representation of the Monettis, a once proud family torn apart by the American Dream. We see the uncomfortable relationship between the four brothers right at the start, watching as Max enters the bank displaying his name, treated coldly as he pushes forth to see his siblings. Mankiewicz beautifully portrays the tension by pausing a beat as Max enters an office at left with Joe, Tony, and Pietro waiting at the other side. The four look at each other with stern faces in silence before the three bankers break into a forced jubilation, welcoming Max back by offering wine, cigars, and money. Something has occurred to make the attorney miss the past seven years, a time in which his father died and his brothers reaped the rewards. What it was, we don’t yet know. But we soon go into a flashback that lasts a good three quarters of the film’s duration—a look into what brought the Monettis to that moment of time, experiencing how this strong family who ate together every Wednesday night at home could become a group of men completely devoid of love.

Because it is love that plays the most integral part of the story onscreen, the existence or disappearance of it that shapes the actions of each character. None of the players are free from fault; they all have demons. But rather than work together and help each other, the slighted decide to walk away from the family at its time of need, watching it implode to pick up the pieces while Max goes to prison, growing the seeds of vengeance. You see, even in death, Gino held great power over each son, his teachings of such gems as finishing your opponent when he’s down so you never have to fight him again rising to the surface despite how much they wished to cleanse themselves of him. Max has stewed for seven years, waiting to return home and destroy his brothers like they dismantled the family. But he also has Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward) to think of, the love he had to leave abruptly in the night. She being there upon his return is the only way to show Max the truth about his father—his manipulations, his hubris, and his being the one to bring them all down. Tough love only works if there is real love underneath to praise and commend. Joe, Tony, and Pietro never earned that right according to Gino, so they grew more and more distant, soon projecting the man they hated onto Max, the golden child.

So it comes down to him. Max can either play into his brothers’ fear of revenge, becoming the man his father groomed him to be, or he can forgive, finishing his life as he saw fit. For all the autonomy he thought he had, Max was always the one controlled most. Hatred was bred every which way in the family, making it so that even marriage was done out of convenience and status. Only Irene was able to break the mold and instill genuine feelings into the Monetti clan, her own headstrong fearlessness giving Max an equal in mind and body. Hayward expresses this strength as well as an ability to fall in love. We know this man enraptures her, but until he opens up, she won’t let him hurt her. She won’t be his subservient wife and is willing to do the impossible—leave him despite her want. He is Max Monetti; that’s just not done. It is the first time he has ever been refused in his entire life and it becomes the moment that opens his eyes towards the reality of his life and the man his father truly was. This epiphany allows for the brilliant finale to work. Even I, a lover of the dark ending, feel the conclusion here was the most appropriate. Love really can conquer all, even if decades of hate have clouded you for too long.

House of Strangers 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

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