If ever a B-movie deserved an A-plus, it's 1944's STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT, a superb film noir obscurity by one of cinema's greatest directors, Anthony Mann. Up to now, this Republic Pictures gem was such a rarity that it often turned up on “lost films” lists. Hats off to Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment for its much-deserved resurrection, and on Blu-Ray (and DVD) no less!
For a B-picture – let alone a Republic B-picture – STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT tackles a hefty load of controversial psycho-sexual baggage. Above and beyond the prerequisite movie lust, there's gender inequality, unholy obsession and hints of incest and lesbianism. And all in under an hour (56 minutes, to be precise)!
The narrative essentially comprises a four-person cast – three of whom are scene-stealing pros; they are also all females. The one-sheet promotable obligatory last male standee (William Terry) is a cookie-cutter beefcake in a military uniform, and his role-reversal of the standard damsel-in-distress (appropriately a dumbbell-in-distress) is yet another interesting aspect of this fascinating jaw-dropper.
There have been a handful of B-classics that have achieved masterpiece status, prominently Edger G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) and Joseph H. Lewis' My Name is Julia Ross (1946). Of course, they are worthy of these accolades – but, move over, boys – 'cause STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT, while not toppling their pantheon pecking order, certainly demands an equal share residence atop their roost.
Curiously enough, many of the visuals in STRANGERS, and indeed some of its themes of paranoia and entrapment, surfaced in Julia Ross (I more than suspect Lewis had seen this movie, a claim that I'm sure any astute viewer will attest to after a screening). Being a “B,” it borrows shamelessly from other bigger pictures of the era, but remarkably ends up making them original. The primary sourcework (like all post-1940 romantic thrillers) is Rebecca, but there's also defiant nod to Ladies in Retirement, Suspicion (both 1941) and to a pair of concurrent 1944 blockbusters, Laura and The Uninvited. Why 1944 was the year of obsessed-with-beauteous-dead-femmes-in-paintings is beyond me. I imagine that STRANGERS reaped their harvest just in time for its autumn release – a budget-savvy example of genius marketing. And not impossible since the shooting schedule couldn't have lasted more than a couple of weeks – if that long.
STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT also moves like a V-2 rocket, and covers a number of international settings. It opens at the height of the then still-raging World War II. Somewhere in the South Pacific, a Marine sergeant sustains seemingly mortal wounds under fire. His convalescence in a field hospital is helped by maintaining a correspondence with a gorgeous American pen-pal. They begin a love affair in prose – so overpowering that he makes a (supposed) full recovery. He journeys to the woman's small-town coastal home – a magnificent mansion, overlooking foreboding cliffs and treacherous rip tides. Eyeing her spectacular portrait only gets his testosterone a-pumpin', but the lady is nowhere to be found. The cavernous manse is occupied only by the girl's carnivorous mother and her toadie servant, whose relationship is, even to the thickest dullard, more than professional (and with a sadistic dash of B&D).
What goes on is a sick display of mind games, lies, torture and, eventually, murder – with the increasingly mentally unhinged ex-Marine reduced to a pitiful victim of the fierce napalm mom. The phobia-prone Sad Sack’s only ally is the village's new doctor – an amazing no-nonsense performance by Virginia Grey (the one “star” name in the picture). Like Terry, Grey's character is an outsider – vocationally shunned by the town because of her sex. She nevertheless uses her abundant down time to help the soldier solve the mystery of his vanished dream lover.
The ultimate conclusion is a humdinger, to put it mildly – all resolved with a plethora of goose-bumping jumps and jolts (and, again, in under an hour). Of course, we must mention the creepy contributions of the dominant mistress and her subservient servant, a de Sade tour de force, delivered with aplomb by the genuinely scary Helene Thimig and poor Edith Barrett. As the villa's viper, Thimig is especially memorable, and seems to have channeled Gloria Holden from Dracula's Daughter as her role model – with an ancillary MD (Mrs. Danvers) major in B-movie be-otchery from Judith Anderson University. Ditto for Barrett, her suffering tops anything in 12 Years a Slave; indeed, her unique dark take on traditional movie twitch-and-hand-fluttering instantly makes her the mean-street queen of what can only be termed zasupittsomnia.
For me, the real star is director Mann, in the process of his climb to Hollywood movie-maker extraordinaire, but already in full command of the medium. Simply put, this is one of the finest B-pics EVER made, certainly the director's greatest work up until T-Men and He Walked by Night. I used to think Desperate and Railroaded showed embryonic signs of his talent; hell, I even admired (and still do) Dr. Broadway (high on my list of all-time title-grabbers). STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT not only takes the cake, but reduces the competition to mere crumbs in enviable The B-Noir Bake-off Finals.
The mix 'n' match screenplay by Bryant Ford and Paul Gangelin (from an original story by Philip MacDonald) contains a generous sprinkling of chilling one-liners to admirably guide its audience along the relentless quicksilver twists and turns (what other picture gets yuks out of someone getting their hand caught in a mowing machine?). I can confidently predict that more than once, viewers will do verbal WTF double-takes of “Did they really say that?” and “What just happened here?”
The cinematography in STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT is terrific – as good as the best work from any A-picture from the Golden Age (or after). BIG kudos to the vastly underrated Reggie Lanning.
Suffice to say, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT was a particularly marvelous discovery for me, since Anthony Mann is one of my favorite directors. It's always wonderful for a jaded seen-it-all idiot like me to find a picture by a cinematic hero that I had never experienced. I figured STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT's anonymity was likely due to the fact that it wasn't that good and/or that the materials on it sucked. As occasionally is the case, I was heinously in the wrong in both departments. I've already given out with the hosannas regarding the former; now let me do the same for the latter. With the exception of some minor negative wear and slight emulsion scratches, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT hails from superb 35MM elements. The images are crystal-clear, the contrast noir-perfect. Damn, if only EVERY black-and-white picture looked like this, the world would indeed be a better place (well, at least for me). That and finding a primary doctor like Grey on my AHC plan
STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT. Black and white. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Defi-nition]. Mono audio [1.0 DTS-HD MA]. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. UPC: 887090055208. Cat #: OF552. SRP: $24.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090055109. Cat #: OF551. SRP: $19.95.