House of Strangers (1949)

Although it’s often classified as a film-noir, House of Strangers is really a drama about a dysfunctional immigrant family that struggles with balancing the “Old World” traditions of Europe with the customs and attitudes of modern America. Told mostly in flashback, the story centers on an Italian-American banker in New York City (Edward G. Robinson) whose dismissive treatment towards three of his four grown sons causes resentment and unhappiness in the household. Then, when the father faces a number of criminal charges surrounding his bank, everyone turns their back on him, except his son Max (Richard Conte), whose undying loyalty ultimately becomes his undoing.

House of Strangers was mostly shot at 20th Century Fox Studios in Hollywood, but they did do some location shooting in New York City, giving the film a little authentic atmosphere. Unfortunately, most of the footage is brief and a lot of it is dark with not many details. And even though it’s unclear whether this was second-unit footage or not, the only principal actor to appear on-location is Richard Conte, which is unfortunate, because it would’ve been great to see Robinson on the actual streets of NYC.

 

Walking Through the Old Neighborhood

The film opens at 1634 Park Avenue, looking southeast towards E 115th Street and the commuter rail viaduct.
The action then switches to around 2213 First Avenue, where push-carts and vendors line the street.
The camera pans right, looking north towards the extant buildings at 2244-2260 First Avenue on the far right. 

 


This opening to the movie was in two different locations. I found one and my research partner, Jeff Blakeslee, found the other.

The first shot was somewhat easy to find, since it featured what looked like the Park Avenue Viaduct which is used by the MetroNorth commuter rail. While some might impulsively think the tracks were for the Third Avenue El, I could tell they were for the Park Avenue commuter line because the streets ran on either side of the tracks, opposed to directly under them.

The next step was to figure out where along the line this scene took place. Fortunately, there’s only about 20 blocks where the viaduct looks like what’s in the film, and since there seemed to be a slight incline in the road, I was almost certain we were near E 116th Street, which is on a hill. After checking out the NYC Municipal Archives, I found a 1940 tax photo of the block on the east side of the tracks just south of 115th Street that looked like a match.

The opening shot from the film (top) and a ca 1940 tax photo looking at the east side of Park Avenue between 115th and 114th Streets (bottom). Red box shows matching details on corner building.

Later on, Blakeslee was able to figure out that the tall building that appeared in the far distance was the former Odd Fellows club at 105 E 106th Street, helping confirm we were looking south from the west side of Park Avenue, near 116th Street.

The opening shot from the film, along with a 1947 southern view of the Odd Fellows tower on E 106th Street (inset), as well as modern northern view of the building (right).

Established in 1929, the 11-story Art Deco tower was originally built for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a non-political, non-sectarian fraternal club. The building was then bought by RKO-Pathé News in 1945, who converted the group of convention halls, meeting rooms and dining areas into television studios and film-processing labs. A few years later, NBC took over a large portion of the space, forming what was called “The Uptown Studio.” During their short tenure there, several live programs were broadcast from the studios, including a show called “We’re On,” hosted by actress Virginia Gilmore and featuring her then-husband, Yul Brynner.

Today, the property is still an active production center, called Metropolis Studios, which is where “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” taped their shows for a few years.

 


The second part of this opening scene was a little harder to figure out, and after I failed to find references/addresses to any of the legible retail signs in the scene, Blakeslee, to his credit, was able to decisively take the reins.

With all the pushcarts and Italian signs, it looked like this scene could’ve taken place in Little Italy or the Lower East Side (in fact, IMDB and AFI list Little Italy as one of the filming locations), but it actually took place in East Harlem, which was the first and foremost Italian neighborhood in NYC.

Blakeslee investigated this often-overlooked historic neighborhood after concluding that the scene was shot somewhere uptown. He came to that conclusion because the street was too wide to be in downtown’s Little Italy, and there was a lot of open sky in the frame, indicating that we were most likely somewhere uptown, away from any tall skyscrapers. So, he thought the old Italian neighborhood in East Harlem was a good place to start.

Of course, the area has seen a lot of demolition and renovations since the 1940s, so he had to rely on vintage photos to help figure out the exact location. After finding a few promising leads, Blakeslee homed in on First Avenue. He then went to the 1940 tax archives and found what looked like matching buildings in a photo of the west side of First Avenue between 113th and 114th Streets.

A scene from the film (left) and a ca 1940 tax photo of 2211-2217 First Avenue (right), with a matching window configuration (highlighted with red lines).

But the real clincher for me was when I discovered several extant buildings on the east side of the avenue, which were clearly the same ones from the film (you can see them in the last “before/after” image above), confirming the scene took place in East Harlem’s Little Italy.

This early 1900s photograph of First Avenue in East Harlem’s Little Italy is what helped Blakeslee home in on this filming location.

At its zenith, this old Italian neighborhood was amazingly large, spanning from 96th to 146th Street, and from 5th Avenue to the East River, with three times the amount of people than the more-famous downtown Little Italy has today.

Originally a rural area, when things started being developed in the late 19th century, what was once a mostly-German neighborhood started seeing a huge influx of Italian immigrants who were coming to America to escape the poverty of Southern Italy. During its heyday, most of East Harlem had been transformed into a traditional Italian village —with its own restaurants, churches, banks, and social groups— becoming one of the largest segregated European communities in the United States. And interestingly, within that community, the roughly 100,000 Italians divided themselves into different smaller settlements based on which region they came from.

Peddlers on E 110th Street and First Avenue, 1934.
Claudio Caponigro gives a traditional shave at his E 116th Street shop of over 60 years, late 2011

Today, the neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic and African-American, and looks very little like it did 100 years ago, but there are still a few tiny remnants of this long-gone enclave sprinkled here and there. Up until 2019, one of the notable standouts was Claudio’s Barbershop on East 116th Street which had been offering old-school shaves and cheap haircuts to celebrities and locals alike since the 1950s.

Then, as the neighborhood was becoming more gentrified in the early 2010s, the 80-year old Claudio Caponigro was forced out of his modest, 15-by-15-foot space after the landlord nearly tripled his rent. Things were looking dire, until a local surgeon let him rent the bottom floor of his recently purchased 4-story walk-up at a below-market rate. That lasted from 2012 to 2019, after which Claudio finally announced that his barbershop was permanently closing.

While Claudio’s may be gone, Patsy’s Pizzeria, which opened in 1933 on First Avenue near 117th Street, is thankfully still around. Considered the oldest in the city, Patsy’s is one of the few coal-oven pizzerias that sells pizza by the slice. In fact, they claim to be the first one to come up with the concept. Inside, it feels like a mini-museum with a cavalcade of artifacts and photos, including a large picture of Frank Sinatra, who, according to Patsy’s co-owner Adam Brija, loved their pizza so much that he used to have dozens of pies flown out to him in LA on his private plane.

When I used to live in the Bronx, I would often stop off at their take-out counter on my bike trip back home for some quick carbs. The slices were tasty and inexpensive, which is probably why this traditional pizzeria has continued to survive in the ever-changing East Harlem.

 

Visiting Irene

After being released from prison, Max Monetti goes to see his brothers at the family bank. Afterwards, he takes a subway uptown to W 72nd Street.
He exits the 72nd Street IND station and goes to see his former lover, Irene, inside the Majestic Apartments at 115 Central Park West.


I found this location pretty quickly. I could tell it was shot somewhere along Central Park West, due to the large park seen on the left side of the street. I also recognized the Neptune and serpents on the wrought iron fence the adjoined the subway entrance, but didn’t immediately remember where I knew it from.

Then it hit me that I used to pass the Neptune sculptures when I’d to go to a New York Sports Club on the Upper West Side. (This was back in the 1990s when I was working on building my pecks and biceps). With that in mind, I just mentally backtracked from the gym location to the nearest subway station. That took me to the 72nd Street station, located next to the Dakota Apartment Building, which has a Neptune-and-serpent-adorned fence all around it.

I then felt a little stupid that I didn’t immediately recognize where those sculptures were, since the Dakota is probably one of the most famous residential buildings in NYC. But at least it gave me a reason to reminisce about the days when I was an indefatigable sports-club-goer with an awesome Adonis physique.

 

The Family House

Feeling solemn, Max returns to the family home at 38 E 38th Street.
He walks up the stairs and lets himself into the empty house. While inside, he goes into a state of reverie, recalling the events that led up to the current state of things.

 


This location was found quite a while ago, and it was one of the first times Blakeslee actively helped me in solving a location mystery. The big clue came from the final shot of the film (see the last entry in this post for more details).

This house at 38 E 38th Street is actually remarkably old, dating back to the Civil War, when the Murray Hill neighborhood began attracting wealthy merchant-class residents. The building featured in this film was one of many four-story Italianate homes that lined the block, and was originally occupied by the co-owner of a high-end jewelry company, Henry Randel and his wife Caroline.

Looking south at 36-40 East 38th Street, circa 1920s.

According to the exhaustive website, daytoninmanhattan, the brownstone townhouse got a major make-over in 1902, receiving an entirely new façade. The remodeled mansion became encased in a stylish limestone with an exuberant number of classical details —many of which are still present today— and was surrounded by ornate ironwork.

In 1936, the single-family home was restructured, in which it was divided into eight separate apartments with a doctor’s office on the basement level. Seventy years later, the inside got restructured again, but the building has remained divided into several rental properties, with a doctor’s office still in the basement.

Amazingly, the exterior of this impressive house has hardly changed since the 1902 renovations, and looks about the same as it did in this 1949 film.

 

A Bath House

Years before he was sent to prison, an agitated Max goes to meet his father Gino in the East Village, walking south on Second Avenue.
Max goes into Second Avenue Baths at 22 Second Avenue, where he complains to his father about Irene, and his father complains to him about the government investigation into his bank.

 


While not shown in the two “before/after” images above, this brief exterior shot does feature an awning above the building’s entrance, which says, “2nd Ave. Baths.” And after doing a little research, I confirmed that it was, in fact, a real Turkish bathhouse in the East Village (although the neighborhood was considered the Lower East Side back when this movie was made).

Like most bathhouses of the time, the one on Second Avenue was pretty much open 24 hours a day, and was frequented by all sorts of different folks, including, as lore would have it, local gangsters who would talk “business” as they got a “schvitz.” However, the bathhouse mostly functioned as a place for New York’s lower-class residents to clean themselves since many of their homes had no hot water.

According to court records from 1937, admittance to 2nd Avenue Baths cost around $1.25, which seems a bit high for that time. But who knows what that buck and a quarter got you. Maybe it included a free hose down and a deep massage from a large, bearded man.

Looking north on Second Avenue, circa 1920s, with the prominent Second Avenue Baths sign on the side of the cast-iron building on the northeast corner of E 1st Street. 

The bathhouse was on the ground floor of what was a rather a stunning cast-iron structure that dated back to 1870, whose most prominent feature was its bold mansard roofs. Before Second Avenue Baths opened in 1921, the six-story building housed a ballroom and a public hall, along with different restaurants and stores that would come and go over the years. However, the Baths remained a steady tenant until the building was demolished in 1959. After that, the corner lot became a gas station, and remained so for several decades until a large condo finally went up there in 2017.

Looking at the east side of 2nd Avenue between 1st and 2nd Streets, from 2019 (left) and circa 1940 (right).

While the building featured in this scene is no longer around, the buildings directly to its north, which were built between the years 1900-1923, are still standing today (you can see them in the two images above). But of course, since the scene is so dark, you really can’t make out any details from them.

 

Bribing a Juror

In hopes of getting a hung jury for his father’s trial, Max drives to a juror’s apartment in the Lower East Side.
Irene waits in the car as Max goes inside 124 East Broadway, hoping he can bribe the juror to hold a “not guilty” vote.  
After being unable to bribe the juror, Max exits the apartment where the police are waiting for him and take him into custody, as Irene helplessly watches from inside the car.

 


With such a dark location, I thought finding it might be a bit of a difficult task, and it seemed like the only clue to go on was what looked like an elevated train in the distance. But fortunately, at the very end of this sequence, the camera pans to a neighboring building that had a store sign above it. The sign looked authentic (not set-dressing), and after boosting up the brightness and contrast, it looked like it said, “SIMON LEVY & SONS.”

In an attempt to avoid a trip to the library to look up the name in an old phone directory, I first tried to do an online search. In my first attempt, I Googled the name using the ampersand as it appeared on the sign, but that gave me nothing. So I tried again, but instead spelled out the word, “and,” and that got me two hits on the newspaper.com website.

However, since the site uses OCR (optical character recognition) to convert the newspaper print into searchable, encoded text, there are often flaws in the transcription. So when it came to the address of “Simon Levy and Sons,” both pages on newspaper.com gave jumbled results. For example, one of them listed the address as, “IJO EAST BROADWAY.”

Even though the number was jumbled, I now had a street name. So, I did another Google search for the store name, along with the phrase, “East Broadway.” Surprisingly, I got two completely new hits, and one of them had a high-resolution scan of a 1946 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which included an ad for Simon Levy and Sons on 120 East Broadway.

After looking at the location in Google Street View, I determined that the building Conte went into was 124 East Broadway. I also realized that the elevated train that can be seen in the beginning of this sequence was the F Train running along the Manhattan Bridge, whose overpass crosses East Broadway one block away.

As a side note, in between 120 and 124 East Broadway is a small alley which would be used nearly 30 years later as the place Clark Kent and Lois Lane get mugged in 1978’s Superman: The Movie.

 

Sing Sing Prison

After being convicted of bribery and juror tampering, Max is sent to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY.

 


This short exterior shot of Sing Sing Prison in Upstate New York was actually lifted from the 1947 noir-film, Kiss of Death, which was produced by the same studio — 20th Century Fox. It’s actually a nicely composed shot from director Henry Hathaway and cinematographer Norbert Brodine, taken from inside a guard tower near the rear entrance.

A circa 2018 view of the parking lot at Sing Sing in Ossining, NY. The movie camera would have been inside the green guard tower in the background, looking down onto the rear entrance to the left.

Naturally, getting permission to go into a prison and taking photographs is not very easy, so I had to rely on the 3D Satellite View in Google Maps to get a similar view of the prison. The quality is pretty cartoony, but it gives us a rough idea of what the nearly 200-year-old correctional facility looks like today, which is more or less unchanged.

 

Back at the House

Max is given a 12-hour leave from prison to go to his father Gino’s wake.
Max goes inside the family home at 38 E 38th Street, where Gino’s body lays in state.
Years later, after nearly being killed by his three brothers, a battered but optimistic Max exits the family home for the last time.
He gets in a car with Irene, and the two of them drive east towards Park Avenue, leaving for San Francisco where they hope to start anew.

 


Like I mentioned earlier in this post, it was this final shot of Max and Irene driving into the sunrise that helped Blakeslee figure out this filming location. The hill they drive down was the major clue that helped narrow down the possibilities. And judging by the opulent style of the houses in that area, he thought it most likely took place somewhere in the affluent East Side.

Using those two clues, he searched a map of Manhattan, looking for appropriate hills on the East Side until he came to a section of Park Avenue in the Murray Hill neighborhood that has a downward slope to the east of it. (It was actually one of the last avenues he checked because he initially didn’t see a median strip in the scene.) From there, he looked at the corner buildings along the avenue, trying to find a match. And he ended up getting pretty lucky, spotting the extant apartment building at 67 Park Avenue in a fairly short period of time.


A promotional photo of a scene taking place at the Monetti family home. While the exteriors were shot in NYC, the interiors were shot on a set at Fox Studios in Hollywood.
Edward G. Robinson and Paul Valentine confront each other in the new family bank. Exteriors were filmed on a backlot, and interiors were filmed on a separate set. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

While I appreciate that the filmmakers made an effort to film on location in New York, aside from the scenes at the family home on E 38th Street, most of the location-filming was rather dull and unimaginative, making me suspicious they were done by a second unit crew. Two of the exterior scenes —at the bath house and at the juror’s apartment— were wasted by filming them in the pitch dark. When you can’t see much beyond the action directly in front of the camera, there isn’t a lot value to them, other than being able to say you used actual NYC locations.

I think that was the main motivation of the studio. They wanted to be able to promote that they filmed at real locations — a new trend in motion pictures that was being used as a way to distinguish them from television. But when the location-shooting is done more as a gimmick than an artistic choice, the quality suffers, which is what I think happened with House of Strangers. 

Also, Blakeslee and I are suspicious that the two opening shots were either lifted from another film or are stock footage. The reason we think that is because the imagery looks like it was from around a decade earlier. In fact, in the first shot on Park Avenue, those tenement buildings on the east side of the tracks (which I found a tax pic for) would have been demolished by 1946 when the Johnson housing development took over the entire block.

Another photo from inside the bank set, featuring a flummoxed Gino, played by Edward G. Robinson. It’s said that the character is loosely based on Amadeo P. Giannini (1870-1949), the founder of the Bank of Italy, which later became Bank of America. 
Richard Conte and Susan Hayward from a boxing scene shot on location at the former Ocean Park Arena in Santa Monica, California. The arena was demolished in the fall of 1958.

While I wasn’t overly impressed with the location-shooting, I did find the story to be interesting and the performances, while sometimes over-the-top, undeniably engaging. Robinson’s portrayal of the brassy, tyrannical patriarch earned him the prize for Best Actor at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, and Richard Conte is solid as Max, the conflicted son. And even though Susan Hayward’s characterization of Irene, Max’s love interest, is somewhat nondescript, the three brothers are each distinct in their own way. Plus, Debra Paget (who was only 15 at the time of filming and is currently the only living cast member from the movie) is adorable as Max’s dedicated Italian fiancée and Hope Emerson is both scary and silly as his stringent potential mother-in-law.

Max, played by Richard Conte, poses with his fiancée Maria, played by Debra Paget (who was only 15 at the time of filming and is currently the only living cast member from the motion picture).

But in the end, the thing I’ll remember most from House of Strangers is an unusual early scene where Luther Adler, who plays the eldest son, is forced to clean Edward G Robinson’s back while he takes a bath. This bizarre image of a humiliated adult son mindlessly scrubbing his naked father’s back is especially poignant at the end of the film when the son has become the tyrannical figure of the household and tries to kill his brother only a few feet away from that same bathroom.

While not technically a noir, House of Strangers has a very strong resemblance to the gangster genre, with hard-edged characters and a winding plot that makes this peculiar 1949 movie worth a viewing.

 

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