Saturday, 30 September 2017

The House of Strangers and Greek tragedy

Above is the opening sequence from House of Strangers, an American film noir from 1949. Thematically and stylistically the film is a precursor to The Godfather. The protagonist in House of Strangers is Max Monetti – played by Richard Conte – the smartest and toughest of the four sons that belong to successful immigrant banker, Gino Monetti, played by Edward G. Robinson. Conte later portrayed Don Barzini in The Godfather but, in his heyday (1940s and 1950s), Conte specialised in depicting tough, working-class, immigrant heroes – Conte himself was the son of Italian immigrants. Notably, Conte played Nick Garcos in Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) based on A.I. Bezzerides' classic crime novel Thieves' Market.

The plot of House of Strangers revolves around the hatred of three of the sons for their overbearing father and the misplaced loyalty that Max shows the old man that lands Max in prison for seven years, coming out of which he vows revenge on his less scrupulous siblings, who've since taken over their father's business, declaring: 'Vengeance is a rare wine. A joy divine; says the Arab. And I'm gonna get drunk on it.'

Revenge is, of course, a major theme in Greek classical culture, which regarded it as a demonstration of hubris, a move towards becoming apolis, that is someone who 'exits from the political community of men (and the concrete result cannot but be death, flight, or exile)' [Castoriadis, Cornelius: Aeschylean Anthropogony and Sophoclean Self-Creation].

These themes of revenge, hubris and becoming apolis are often present in the best film noirs and Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, which sometimes allow the hero to accept the strictures of civilised society and rejoin it, and sometimes reveal that there's no way back for him into society and 'death, flight or exile' is all he can expect.

The screenplay for House of Strangers was written by Philip Yordan, who penned a number of significant film noirs – House of Strangers, The Chase, Edge of Doom, The Big Combo, Detective Story – and Westerns – Broken Lance, Johnny Guitar, The Last Frontier, Day of the Outlaw, The Man from Laramie – in this period. Yordan admitted the influence of Greek tragedy in his work:

'I detest a certain type of modern would-be "hero", people who are obsessed only by getting their daily bread. I have tried to react against this petty bourgeois mentality and attempted to discover again the purity of the heroes of classical tragedy. I have always wanted to re-create a tragic mythology, giving a large role to destiny, solitude, nobility.'

g The whole of House of Strangers can be seen in 12 parts on youtube or downloaded as a torrent from here.