The House on Carroll Street Review
New York, 1951. Emily Crane (Kelly McGillis), a young woman active in left-wing causes, refuses to name names at a hearing presided over by Ray Salwen (Mandy Patinkin). Salwen initiates a smear campaign which results in Emily losing her job at Life Magazine. Looking for work, Emily takes a job reading to an elderly lady, Miss Venable (Jessica Tandy). However, just across the way is a mysterious house where some German refugees are being hidden…
The House on Carroll Street was an old-fashioned thriller, Hitchcockian in style if not achievement, when it was released in 1988. The film was originally called The House on Sullivan Street, but had its title changed due to a similarity with that of another film in development at the time. (The street where the house is located is not named in the script, in any case.) Robert Benton was to direct, and his name remains on the film as an executive producer. Then as well as now, it was something of a rarity in being a thriller aimed at adults with a PG certificate, though a stabbing and a glimpse of McGillis’s breasts in a bath scene push at the boundaries of that rating.
This is a film where there’s not much wrong with the ingredients but for whatever reason it simply doesn’t work. Peter Yates is certainly a capable director, and you can’t complain about the look of the film, production designer Stuart Wurtzel and DP Michael Ballhaus doing wonders on what wasn’t an especially high budget. The cast is certainly capable, but none too ideally cast. Scriptwriter Walter Bernstein had lived through the McCarthy era and been blacklisted, and had indeed already dealt with the subject ten years earlier in The Front. You’d expect something a little less impersonal from someone like this. In fact, this isn’t really a film about anti-Communist witch hunts: the hearings are really just a plot device for a standard-issue thriller about a plot to import leading Nazis posing as Jewish refugees, a plot which relies on a whopper of a coincidence.
Kelly McGillis and Jeff Daniels, the latter playing a FBI agent set to trail her who becomes more personally involved, are quite capable separately, but together lack much in the way of chemistry. McGillis, however, doesn’t seem quite right for this role. Consider this: the actress is 5’10”, which is tall for a woman today (and about average height for a man). In 1951, she’d tower over most of her co-stars – and her height would likely be remarked upon at least once – but that doesn’t happen. It’s not hard to suspect that this film’s rendition of 1951 is a period confection rather than an accurate picture, and it doesn’t really ring true. Mandy Patinkin, on the other hand, is in good form as the villain of the piece. Despite some murky plotting, Yates does a professional job of directing. The film’s climax, in Grand Central Station, owes something to Hitchcock’s Saboteur.
The House on Carroll Street was made by the now-defunct Orion Pictures, and appears as a back-catalogue DVD from MGM. One immediate strike against it is that it’s in the wrong aspect ratio. The transfer is in 1.66:1, and, in what seems to be the policy for this distributor, is not anamorphically enhanced when it could be. However, this is a quite recent film made to be shown in commercial American cinemas (in other words, not arthouses), and these generally can only show 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. So this should have been an anamorphic DVD in the former ratio. It’s certainly possible for a director or DP to prefer their film shown in a narrower ratio (that is, with thinner black bars) for home viewing, but there’s no indication that this is the case here. Given the usual signs of a back-catalogue MGM DVD, I doubt that that’s the case. I’d recommend that owners of widescreen TVs zoom the picture to 16:9…as long as you don’t need to read any subtitles. Given all that, this is not a bad transfer, colourful with strong blacks, but there’s some artefacting and a slight softness that may be due to this being non-anamorphic.
This film was a late major-studio release with a mono soundtrack (though maybe not quite so late, considering it was actually made in 1986 and sat on the shelf for over a year). There’s nothing to complain about, as the dialogue is clear and well balanced with the effects and Georges Delerue’s score. There are four dubbed versions. Subtitles are available, but be aware that they are not 16:9-friendly. The DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. There are no extras at all, and the main menu uses the standard MGM symbols, despite there being language choices in the five soundtrack languages.
The House on Carroll Street is a so-so thriller that may pass the time but isn’t really worth seeking out, except for fans of the stars and director. The DVD is nothing to write home about either.