The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)
(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

Atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco sits a Victorian house once occupied by a couple and their young son.

Victoria Kowelska (Valentina Cortesa) came to the United States following the end of the second World War hoping to find peace, and a better life. Taking on the identity of her friend Karin, who died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she has left Europe hoping to find Karin’s son Chris, and to care for him as her own.

Vicky soon learns that the aunt who was caring for Chris has passed away. Still, she perseveres, and tracks down Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), who adopted Chris.

Vicky decides that her best chance for a safe future is to marry an American, so she accepts Alan’s proposal, moving to San Francisco with Alan and Chris. But Vicky begins to suspect that not all is as it seems in that house upon Telegraph Hill, nor in her marriage.

The House on Telegraph Hill was directed by Robert Wise.

This film’s story is told in flashback, so we know from the get-go that “Karin”/Victoria no longer lives on Telegraph Hill. She’s moved away, and the house is up for sale. Immediately, this adds tension as we wait to see how it all will unravel for her, and how bad the damage will be if her lie is revealed.

The film’s premise of a concentration camp survivor moving to the United States and impersonating her deceased friend is outlandish, but one can understand why she’d want to start over after dealing with so much loss and enduring captivity. She’s neither a heroic nor an evil character. She’s quite calculated in her attempt to find a better life, marrying an American man solely for the advantages he can provide her, but again, who can blame her after what she has experienced? Cortesa gives a fantastic performance in the role.

(Image via Reel SF)
(Image via Reel SF)

As for Alan, her American husband, he turns out to be a total snake. Basehart’s performance isn’t over-the-top villainous, but in context of what Vicky discovers, the character becomes so! Every little move he makes begins to look fishy, and the final half hour or so of the film is both chilling and gripping.

San Francisco contributes to the film’s ability to keep a firm hold on the viewer. It makes such a fantastic setting for films, and a car accident scene staged in the city’s hilly streets is brilliantly suspenseful.

That scene kicks off heightened suspense which carries throughout the rest of the picture as “Karin” becomes suspicious of her husband. The photography becomes a bit more shadowy, the music a bit more high-drama to match.

The House on Telegraph Hill is a very well-crafted film with plenty of suspense and drama to keep the viewer hooked. Recommended.

4 thoughts on “The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

  1. I live in San Francisco, so I love to watch old (and new) movies filmed here. There is no real house on Telegraph Hill, but otherwise the on location filming was wonderful. I was able to suspend disbelief totally, and I thought the film was very good. Not one of the best, but very good. I think I saw it categorized as film noir. I would be interested in your opinions on any films made in San Francisco.


    1. I may have to do a whole blog post on my favorite San Francisco-set films! Off the top of my head, Dark Passage and The Maltese Falcon would likely top the list (of course). I also love Vertigo, Fog Over Frisco, Born to Kill, Days of Wine and Roses. I’ve reviewed most of these films, and more set in the city, which you can read by searching “San Francisco” (quotation marks included) in the sidebar if you’re interested. :) Sadly, I’ve never actually been able to visit the city, but I’ll make it over to the west coast some day!


  2. Thanks for reminding me about this good thriller . Must watch it again. I’d love to visit all the classic film locations in San Francisco.


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