Strangers When We Meet

This is a story about building a house. Is that too glib? Perhaps it sounds like it is, but it’s not meant to be. Would it be better if I said it’s about lack of fulfillment? Well, that’s true too; it’s a movie about both, and at  heart it’s a movie about people in love. All of these elements converge in Strangers When We Meet (1960), separate and unconnected when they initially come together, just as the title itself suggests, fuse and then diverge again at the close. Still, that climactic separation is not quite as clean or as complete as one might expect – after all, nobody and nothing can remain unchanged and unaffected by their experiences.

The post-war suburban idyll, that’s the image we’re first presented with. A peaceful and prosperous looking street gradually filling up with chattering parents and children bustling along to the bus stop. They gossip and exchange small talk, bid a temporary farewell to the kids and then start to drift apart again, off to resume their day as the strangers they had been a few minutes before. But not all of them; architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) lets his gaze linger a touch longer on the demure yet voluptuous Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), and she discreetly returns that slow-eyed appraisal. So there we have it, those tiny hairline cracks in the veneer of prim middle-class respectability are suddenly exposed to the glare of the early morning sun. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to go into huge detail regarding the plot here. Suffice to say that Larry and Maggie are both less than satisfied in their lives; she is married to a stiff and undemonstrative man while he feels suffocated by the twin pressure of unrealized professional potential and a wife (Barbara Rush) he blames for stifling his creativity. Therefore, we have two people struggling with what they think are unfulfilled lives, ripe for romance and risk. The trigger for it all, what tips the balance, is the aforementioned house. Larry has been given a commission by a bestselling novelist (Ernie Kovacs)  to construct his dream home – something he seizes onto hopefully, as a drowning man will snatch at anything buoyant. It’s this that actually brings Maggie and Larry together, the building of the house proceeds alongside the blossoming of their illicit relationship, with its completion resulting in… Well, watch it yourself and see.

Director Richard Quine had been making a succession of mostly light comedies throughout the 1950s, with a couple of films noir such Pushover and Drive a Crooked Road thrown into the mix. Bearing that in mind, a melodrama in the mold of Douglas Sirk would appear to be an odd project for him to take on. For all that, it works very well indeed, with Quine tackling the serious themes with skill, tact and sensitivity. He never allows it all to become too broad, overheated or overwrought. And visually, he paints  from an exciting and evocative palette as he and cinematographer Charles Lang Jr light, frame and color the movie beautifully – from the marvelously tinted and shadowed first “date” for the clandestine lovers to the warm autumnal mellowness of the final scene, and through it all Ms Novak’s costumes progress from brazen scarlet to virginal white later in the movie, indicating a journey back to spiritual purity. All in all, an excellent handling of cinema’s own special syntax.

So to the writing, the solid core of any piece of filmmaking and frequently the area where the most significant strengths or weaknesses lie. In this case it comes from the pen of Blackboard Jungle writer Evan Hunter ( a man I’m more familiar with for his 87th Precinct books under his other pseudonym of Ed McBain) and adapted from his own novel. As I said in the introduction, it’s a movie about building a house and as such needs a firm foundation to anchor it. Indeed the characters themselves comment on a few occasions about the precarious placement of the house, half joking that it may all come crashing down. And here the architect is seen to be really constructing his building for the woman he loves; she appears to have inspired it and even if he’s not fully aware of this himself, I think it ought to be clear enough to the viewer. The tragedy here is that he’s building this for someone else to occupy, which leads back to the accompanying theme of lack  of fulfillment – the entire premise of his love can never truly be fulfilled.

Still, it’s not quite as bleak as all that. I can only offer my own interpretation but I think  that, ultimately, Hunter wants to put across the idea that the act of loving, both the physical and the emotional, are as close to personal fulfillment as anyone can hope to arrive. That it may not always be a success or be directed towards the right person is perhaps irrelevant. Some will be lucky, they will connect with that ideal or perfect match, but for others the knowledge that they were able to touch on a form of perfection in an imperfect situation may actually be enough, or at least be enough not to negate that love which was but briefly shared.

The last time I wrote about a movie starring Kirk Douglas was on the occasion of his 103rd birthday. Since then he has sadly left us but in doing so he also left behind a wonderful legacy of performances to be enjoyed. He was of course a front line star, a man who seemed as big as the movies themselves yet versatile enough to be wholly believable in whatever role he took on. As an increasingly embittered middle-class man drifting into dissatisfied middle age, he’s never less than credible.

There’s a nice degree of subtlety involved in Douglas’ differing interactions with both Barbara Rush and Kim Novak, as wife and mistress respectively. Both actresses bring a lot to the movie too, Novak has the bigger role with more screen time and she uses that enigmatic quality to good effect – incidentally, this was the third of four films she made for Quine – and the hesitancy and uncertainty she tapped into so well in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is in evidence again. Rush has to wait till the third act to get her big moments and handles them just fine, notably the creepy confrontation with Walter Matthau’s two-faced neighbor. Matthau himself is delightfully sleazy and oily in his role, taunting Douglas during the pivotal barbecue scene before later making his move on Rush in the literally tempestuous climax. A word also for Ernie Kovacs, someone else who was used on a number of occasions by Quine. There are only hints at his quirky comedic side as he gives us an interesting take on the self-doubting writer, a successful man who is every bit as much in search of fulfillment, primarily the artistic kind in his case, as any of the other characters. The fact is that pretty much everyone in the movie is living their own variation on the American Dream; the problem is it’s giving most of them sleepless nights.

I’m not sure if Strangers When We Meet has been released on Blu-ray – someone will no doubt set me straight on that – but it is freely available in multiple locations on DVD. I’ve had the Italian release for some time but only recently got around to it, and I’m very pleased that I did. The movie has, to my eyes anyway, been presented very well and the marvelous Scope  image is highly immersive. The fact is of course that the story itself draws you in with its touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lost people searching desperately for meaning, fulfillment and genuine love.  It really is a rich, layered and intelligent piece of filmmaking, a joy to watch and one I’ll most certainly be revisiting.

Nine Men

Last month, I was happy to host a guest post from contributor Gordon Gates, who also enjoyed the experience and expressed a desire to add some more on occasion. Seeing as he tends to focus on the kind of lesser known movies that I frequently enjoy but am not always familiar with, I’m delighted to offer him the space. This time he said I could choose between a number of (unnamed) options, and from those I went for the British war movie. So, read on…

Nine Men (1943)

During the Second World War pretty well all the countries involved put their film companies to work pumping out propaganda films. These would range from home front items to flag-wavers showing the various military arms at combat. This film is, in my opinion, one of the best productions to come out Britain during World War Two. Low budget for sure, but it is a winner. It is a neatly done film which uses service personnel in the roles.

This one starts with a Sergeant at a training barracks, Jack Lambert, telling the new recruits about a battle in North Africa he had been in. It is late 1941, Lambert along with eight others, are crossing the desert in a truck. The vehicle becomes bogged down in the deep sand. The men jump out to push. The truck is set upon by two German fighters who strafe the truck and men. Two of the men are wounded and the truck set alight.

The men manage to pull their weapons, a little ammo and a few canteens of water out of the blazing truck. The officer of the group is among the wounded. The section sergeant, Lambert, takes charge and they set off toward their lines carrying the two wounded.

A vicious sand storm brews up and the group loses their bearings. They, however, stumble onto a small abandoned building and take shelter inside. The storm blows its self out by the next morning. The officer has died of his wounds during the night and the men bury him outside the building.

As the British prepare to move on, a group of Italians soldiers approach them out of the desert. The British open fire killing several and putting the others to flight. Lambert is not sure just how many Italians there are, and decides to hole up for a bit. The other wounded man has taken a bad turn and needs further rest. The men watch the dunes for any enemy movement. The Italians at the moment are quite happy just sniping at the British.

The Italians try a quick assault just before dark, but are shot to pieces by the British who are firing from cover. They then try to have a go during the night with a light armored car. The one Brit, Grant Sutherland, though is a wiz with the Boys anti-tank rifle they have. He puts a few .55 caliber rounds into the armored car, disabling same. Lambert sends off one of the men towards the British lines to fetch help. The Brits can see the Italians gathering in ever growing numbers.

Lambert figures the Italians will soon try and swamp them. The Brits are out of water and down to about 15 rounds each. The other wounded man has also succumbed to his wounds. Lambert has two of the men take all the grenades and hide in the dunes outside the building. If the Italians attack, they are to toss all the grenades and scream like they are a dozen men. Hopefully they can bluff the Italians into thinking they are a large group.

The trick works and the Italians pull back. The Brits though are down to 4 or 5 rounds apiece. More Italians arrive and it looks like the end for Lambert and his group
Do the Brits stave off another attack? Or are they overwhelmed, killed or captured to become prisoners. Could perhaps the British arrive with reinforcements and save the day?

 

The rest of the cast includes. Fred Piper, John Varley, Jack Horsman, Bill Blewitt, Eric Miklewood, Richard Wilkinson and a 20 year old Gordon Jackson.

The director of this excellent film was Harry Watt. A former documentary film maker, (Target for Tonight) Watt keeps the pace even and shows a solid hand with the action sequences.

The lead, Jack Lambert, had a long film career being of screen from 1931 to 1975.
The film borrows some elements from the American film Sahara, which had used story ideas from the Soviet war film The Thirteen.
Most of the action was filmed at Margam Sands in Wales.
 
Gordon Gates

Flaming Feather

Having taken a break from writing about the genre for a bit, I think it’s time to return to the movies that have formed the bedrock of this site since its earliest days – westerns. Instead of getting into a thematically rich example, I’m going to look at a brisk, no-nonsense entertainment. Flaming Feather (1952) is exactly that; pacy, plot-driven and directed by perennial journeyman Ray Enright, the movie tells an enjoyable and undemanding story in an hour and a quarter, makes the most of its attractive locations and allows its accomplished cast to smoothly occupy the types of roles they were ideally suited to.

Arizona in the post-Civil War era and, as ever, there is a threat to the creeping influence of civilization. Sometimes the movies will focus on the menace of outlaw gangs, ruthless gunslingers, business rivals, or indigenous resistance. On this occasion, it’s something of a hybrid: a band of murderous and relentless Ute renegades who appear to be organized and led by a faceless white man, a man who is known only by the alias of the Sidewinder. Of course any villain, not least one who assumes the identity of a serpent, should sooner or later come face to face with his or her personal nemesis. The core concept that has been at the heart of all drama, from classical tragedy right down to popcorn fare such as Flaming Feather, is that one can only spend so long poking a finger in the eye of fate before some form of retribution descends. And so it is here that the Sidewinder pushes his luck once too often. By raiding and plundering the ranch of Tex McCloud (Sterling Hayden), he sets in motion a chain of events that will lead inexorably to his downfall. The hero in this case has the kind of implacable resolve that it’s best not to gamble against, and backing up his natural thirst for a reckoning is the small matter of a wager he has laid with a cavalry lieutenant (Forrest Tucker) regarding who is going to track down the perpetrator first. So we have a fairly straightforward setup, one which will be further complicated (though never unduly so) by the intervention of two women, Arleen Whelan & Barbara Rush, as it heads towards a memorable conclusion amid the ruins of Montezuma Castle.

Ray Enright was nearing the end of a long career by the time he took charge of Flaming Feather. He only had one more feature ahead of him (a routine George Raft effort) and came to this off the back of a run of solid and enjoyable movies with Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy, as well as the extremely disappointing Montana with Errol Flynn. Enright is never going to make anyone’s list of great directors, but he was a competent studio professional and, given the right script, cast and crew, was more than capable of producing a good quality piece of work. This movie saw him shooting a tight and trim script penned by Gerald Drayson Adams, taking advantage of the dramatic Arizona locations, and enjoying the contribution of top cinematographer Ray Rennahan. The tone throughout is consistent – straight drama with a light sprinkling of well-judged humor – and the big action set pieces in the third act are nicely handled.

One day I may well devote a post to distinctive voices and styles of delivery in the movies. I could turn out copy on Dan Duryea’s wheedling, Orson Welles’ cajoling, Burt Lancaster’s pitter-patter, and perhaps Sterling Hayden’s confrontational abruptness. The latter carries an air of authority, it doesn’t leave a great deal of room for maneuver or subtlety but it certainly evokes the straight-shooting hero who favors the direct approach. And this is exactly the type of performance Hayden delivers; there’s no shading or nuance here, just a portrait of a wronged man on a quest for justice, which is perfectly fine under the circumstances. Any consideration of instantly recognizable voices would have to include Victor Jory, a man whose characteristic tones typically put me in mind of someone trying to sell a used bottle of snake oil, and possessed of a face which seems always to have been a stranger to sincerity. He was born to play villains and I don’t imagine it’s going to constitute a spoiler of any consequence to say that this is the role he fulfills once again.

There are some actors who, when their names appear among the credits, give viewers a reassuring feeling, a comforting knowledge that, whatever else may be lacking, they can be depended on to turn in a strong performance. Forrest Tucker was such a figure; he was entirely at home in westerns and he brought an authenticity to the screen. If I have any complaint here, it’s that he’s missing from the action for far too long in the mid-section. Of the two female roles, Arleen Whelan gets the showier part as the duplicitous saloon girl and runs with it. Barbara Rush is given a simpler and more one-dimensional character, but bigger and better things were just around the corner for her, starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space and then a a number of fine movies for Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. In support, we get Edgar Buchanan, Richard Arlen and a small but welcome part for Ray Teal.

Flaming Feather was made for Nat Holt Productions via Paramount. There are a few DVD releases of the film in European countries – Italy and Germany for sure, although there may be others. I have the German disc and it’s what I might term OK. The image is clear enough but it’s obviously using an older master and there is that softness and lack of “zip” associated with such sources. I’d like to see it scrubbed up and looking fresher but I imagine I might be in a for a long wait. As movies go, this isn’t going to change anyone’s world, alter one’s perceptions of the genre or stimulate any intellectual debate. What it will do, however, is provide a pleasant evening’s entertainment. I liked it.

The Sign of the Ram

As I was watching The Sign of the Ram (1948) I found myself idly wondering  – and I seem to have a great deal of time for idleness these days – about a number of things, perhaps the least significant of which was a growing curiosity about how many noir melodramas involved grand old houses perched precariously atop dramatic cliffs with boiling seas below. Sitting and admiring the atmospheric matte paintings in the background, I had  hunch there must be lots, but I think now that’s probably an exaggeration on my part. Whatever the number might actually be, it won’t alter the fact that this is a fine setting for a movie, the drama and violence of nature vying for attention with the emotional tempests raging within the quasi-Gothic old pile that houses a host of troubled souls.

Nothing is quite as it seems. Sherida Binyon (Phyllis Thaxter) arrives to take up her new position as secretary to poet Leah St Aubyn (Susan Peters), who is confined to a wheelchair. Her husband Mallory (Alexander Knox) is devoted to her and it’s quickly apparent that everyone in the house, all the children of Mallory’s first marriage, shares these sentiments. On the surface, it looks as though the sweetness and stoic rejection of self-pity on Leah’s part are the inspiration for this. Yet that’s not the case at all; Leah’s disability is the result of her rescuing the younger St Aubyn members during a storm off the coast, a heroically altruistic act which saw her cast upon the rocks and her body broken. Bit by bit, it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s an implicit, unspoken sense of guilt at the back of it all, a tacit acceptance that the lives snatched back from the grasp of the sea represent a debt that is hard to repay. In a savage twist on that old belief that saving a life leaves a person responsible for that life in the future, it is gradually revealed that Leah has manipulated her family’s gratitude into a corrosive form of guilt. And all the while the ocean booms against the Cornish rocks, biding its time till the payment it’s due can be collected.

 

Personally speaking, John Sturges isn’t the first name I’d think of were I asked to name a potential director of a film noir with a strong flavoring of Gothic melodrama. Of course Sturges, like all contract directors in the studio era, worked across a range of genres and was no stranger to film noir – Mystery Street, Jeopardy & The People Against O’Hara comprising a few. Nevertheless, I tend to think of westerns, and as to a lesser extent, war movies when he’s spoken of. He had a terrific eye for composition and the way the framing of a shot could be used to the greatest advantage. This would become ever more apparent in the future when he embraced and fully exploited the potential of the wide screen, and he knew how to place his actors on location too. The Sign of the Ram is set bound though and shot in Academy ratio so it could be said that it wasn’t playing to his strengths. While that may be true to some extent, he does take full advantage of what opportunities are afforded and, aided immensely by the masterly cinematography of Burnett Guffey, shoots from below an above to alter the mood and adds frames within frames to narrow the focus and fasten the viewers’ attention.

Looked at from the perspective of 2020, The Sign of the Ram doesn’t feature a cast full of the kind of names that are going to be immediately recognizable. Despite that relative unfamiliarity, it would be fair to say the film boasts an interesting lineup. The leading lady and prime mover of the whole piece is Susan Peters, and hers is a fascinating and tragic tale. With her star on the rise and only a year or so into her marriage to actor and future director Richard Quine, she was the victim of a hunting accident when a discarded gun discharged and the resultant wound left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was just 23 years old then and she would pass away at the age of 31. This film was to be her comeback and she is fine in her role, carefully hiding her true feelings from those around and only offering hints to her dissatisfaction in her private moments and through her constant chain-smoking. All told, it’s an excellent study of the consequences of manipulation driven by fear.

Alexander Knox is likely to be the best known face on the screen, his long and varied career highlighting his versatility – something I noted before when looking at his excellent work in an unfamiliar western setting in Man in the Saddle – and he gets across the decency of his character in a most believable fashion here. Phyllis Thaxter looks set to enjoy a more dynamic role as the new secretary, a point of view figure for the audience to identify with, but she seems to gradually drift towards the sidelines as the story unfolds. Peggy Ann Garner gets the showier part as the younger daughter in the family while Allene Roberts and Ross Ford are both perfectly acceptable as her siblings. Diana Douglas (the wife of Kirk Douglas at the time) comes more into the spotlight in the latter stages and there’s solid support from Dame May Whitty and Ron Randell.

The Sign of the Ram is a Columbia picture and, as far as I’m aware, has not enjoyed a release on disc anywhere. However, it can be tracked down for online viewing. I guess the lack of big name stars in the cast may have led to this movie being neglected. In addition, I sometimes think that Sturges work overall has not been had the critical attention much of it deserves. Perhaps his move into big budget, popular movies through the 1960s and then the variable quality of his later work is the reason. Whatever the reason, he’s highly rated on this site and I feel this film from early in his career is at least worth a look.