The House on Telegraph Hill
House on Telegraph Hill

This mystery, which takes place in San Francisco, was originally turned down by Wise, who found the material uninspiring. Eventually, Darryl Zanuck, Twentieth Century Fox production head, convinced him to do the movie, even though Zanuck himself agreed that "it may not be the greatest story in the world."*

Richard Basehart and Valentina

William Lundigan and Valentina Cortesa

A look at the MPAA/PCA reaction to several script drafts of HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL showed what influence the organization had on films back then. It objected to a character going free after attempting suicide, stating they could not approve the suicide of characters to escape the processes of the law. Among other details, it did not approve of the use of sleeping pills as a means to an attempted murder, offering that such a detail could inspire imitation.

No one could put a stop to the love the film inspired for two of its stars, though: Richard Basehart and Valentina Cortesa married in 1951.

Synopsis The imposing Victorian house on Telegraph Hill overlooking San Francisco, where Victoria Kowelska once thought she would find peace and contentment, is now up for sale. Victoria begins her story eleven years earlier in 1939, when the German army left her beautiful home near Warsaw, Poland in ruins.  Her husband died in the siege, and Vicky became one of thousands hoarded into concentration camps. At the camp at Belsen, Germany, Vicky becomes friends with another Pole, Karin Dernakova, a sickly, frail woman, who shares her life story with Vicky. Karin doubts that she will ever again see her son Christopher, whom she smuggled out of Poland to the United States just before the war began.  After Vicky protects Karin from another prisoner's attempted theft, Karin invites her to San Francisco to live with her and Chris in the big house on the hill belonging to her aunt Sophie, a Polish noble who emigrated to the United States in 1904 to marry a wealthy shipbuilder. Karin dies three days before the camp is liberated.  As Karin had not seen her aunt since she was a little girl, Vicky decides to pose as Karin. At a displaced persons camp, Vicky sends a cable to Sophie, but receives a reply from Joseph C. Callahan, an attorney in New York, coldly informing her that Sophie is dead. Although her hopes are now nearly gone, Vicky perserveres, and in 1950 reaches New York on a United PosterNations refugee ship.  At Callahan's office, she meets Alan Spender, a relative of Aunt Sophie by marriage, who adopted Chris after her death, believing that Chris's parents also had died.  Callahan reveals that Sophie left her valuable estate to Chris, with Alan as guardian, and says he has doubts concerning Vicky's claim to be Karin.  When Vicky vows to fight, Alan, admiring her resolve, invites her to dinner and during the next two weeks, woos her.  Feeling that her best chance for safety is to be married to an American, Vicky accepts Alan's proposal and arrives in San Francisco as his wife.  Vicky soon suspects that something is wrong in the house. Marc Bennett, a senior partner in the law firm representing the estate, recognizes Vicky as a refugee he questioned years earlier when he was in the army and offers himself as a friend. While playing catch with Chris, Vicky comes upon an abandoned playhouse that is damaged terribly. Vicky looks for Margaret, Chris's governess, to ask about the explosion and, not finding her in her room, starts to open a locked album, when Margaret discovers her. Margaret says coldly that Aunt Sophie gave her the album. During their subsequent argument, she calls Vicky an intruder.  Vicky gives Margaret notice to leave, but when Alan returns home, he refuses to fire her. At the playhouse, Vicky discovers an extremely dangerous hole in the side and floor leading to a steep drop to a street below.  Alan enters and as he chillingly questions her, she backs up in fear and falls through the hole, but he rescues her.  Although he tries to comfort her, her suspicions about him increase. One day, as Vicky prepares to go with Chris to the store, Margaret stops them, saying that Chris has forgotten to clean his room.  Vicky then leaves by herself, and when she steps on the brake while on a steep hill, she discovers she cannot stop her car.  After narrowly avoiding other cars, she crashes into a construction site just in front of a wall leading to a steep drop below. She calls Marc and tells him that Alan tried to kill her and Chris so that he would get control of the estate.  Marc doubts her, but promises to investigate. He confesses that he is in love with her, and she admits her real identity. Having seen Belsen himself, Marc understands her attempt to grab a chance for a better life, but feels that her own bad conscience has led her to magnify events into unwarranted suspicions about Alan. Later, while home alone, Vicky pries open the album in Margaret's room and finds a newspaper obituary for Aunt Sophie stating that the death occurred a few days after the date of the cable sent to her in 1945.  Alan surprises her, and later that night, he removes the phone off the hook in the library. In the bedroom, Alan fixes a glass of orange juice for Vicky. When she starts to return to the library for a book, he goes instead, then, on returning to the bedroom, he encourages her to drink the juice.  When she says that earlier it tasted bitter, he pours himself a glass from the pitcher and drinks it, then says it tastes fine and she drinks hers. Vicky accuses him of killing Aunt Sophie, in addition to trying to kill her and Chris. Alan then admits that he has been hoarding doses of a sedative that the doctor has prescribed for Margaret's insomnia and has put all of it into her glass of orange juice.  Aghast, Vicky informs Alan that he has drunk the contaminated juice himself; when he left to get her book, she poured herself a different glass and poured the juice from the first glass back into the pitcher.  Now sweating profusely, Alan tells Margaret that Vicky has poisoned him and asks her to call for a doctor, explaining that the receiver in the library is off the hook.  When Alan admits trying to kill Chris in the car, but says he did it so they could be together like old times, Margaret, who loves the boy, coldly informs him the line is dead. When the police arrive, Alan is dead. Vicky tries to defend Margaret for not calling a doctor, but the police plan to take her away for questioning.  When they find Chris absent from his room, Vicky fears Margaret has left with him, but they discover her watching over the boy as he sleeps in her room.  Vicky offers to be a witness for her, but Margaret replies that her conscience will be her witness.  Marc takes Vicky and Chris away from the house to his mother's house, but before leaving she goes to Aunt Sophie's portrait.  Marc says Aunt Sophie would approve, and Vicky replies that all she can do is thank her for everything.

From the AFI Catalog of Feature Films

Wise Facts
  • The story itself was serialized in Harper's Magazine in 1948 and had been in the Fox files for several years.
  • Footage of displaced persons boarding an International Refugee Organization ship was included in the film at the request of the United Nations as a public service for "making the world conscious of the United Nations and it activities."
  • Credits: 93 min. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.; Distributed by: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.;  Directed by: Robert Wise;  Produced by: Robert Bassler;  Screenplay by: Elick Moll & Frank Partos;  Edited by: Nick De Maggio;  Director of Photography: Lucien Ballard;  Music by: Sol Kaplan;  Production Design by: Lyle Wheeler;  Sound by: George Leverett;  Costumes by: Renie;  Make-up by: Sol Kaplan.
    Cast  Richard Basehart (Alan Spender), Valentina Cortesa (Victoria Kowelska), William Lundigan (Major Marc Bennett), Fay Baker (Margaret), Gordon Gebert (Chris), Kei Thing Chung (Kei, houseboy), Steve Geray (Dr. Burkhardt), Herbert Butterfield (Joseph C. Callahan), John Burton (Mr. Whitmore), Katherine Meskill (Mrs. Whitmore), Mario Siletti (Tony), Charles Wagenheim (Man at accident), David Clarke (Mechanic), Tamara Schee (Maria), Natasha Lytess (Karin Dernakova), Ashmead Scott (Inspector Hardy), Tom McDonough (Farrell), Henry Rowland (Sergeant-Interpreter), Les O'Pace (UNRA sergeant), Don Kohler (Chemist), Harry Carter (Detective Ellis), Spencer Chan (Chinese cook), Mari Young (Chinese singer), Jeffrey Sayre (Police stenographer), Roger McGee (G.I.), Eugene Porcheur (Pole), Florence Buzby, Glen Walters, Margaret Masters, Sonia Charsky, Eleanor Moore, and Jeraldine Jordan.

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    1. Robert Wise On His Films, p. 76

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