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Paul Muni's Wikipedia page almost completely skips any mention of his Italian-made Imbarco a mezzanote (Literally, Ship Out at Midnight), a thriller closely associated with the blacklist years. It was released in Italy early in 1952, and as Stranger on the Prowl in America at the end of 1953. Muni hadn't been in a major film for a number of years but he was still a huge star on the stage. The actor might not have known that he was getting into a politically risky production. No film is more closely related to the blacklist than Stranger on the Prowl. 1
Ben Barzman considered his original script to be one of his best. A desperate "Stranger with a Gun" (Paul Muni) is discovered trying to sneak out of an Italian port by stowing away on a freight ship disembarking at midnight. The captain throws him off but offers to let him come back for a cash payment. The Stranger hasn't eaten in days. The junk dealer Peroni (Aldo Silvani) can't buy his .45 automatic and another character offers him less than nothing for it. We also meet two other unhappy people. The maid Angela (Joan Lorring of Three Strangers) wants to have something decent to wear to attract her boyfriend but is caught stealing clothing by her employer. The lecher forces a bargain -- that includes accompanying her to her apartment that night, for a "date." In the poorest section of town, little Giacomo (Vittorio Manunta - actually Mazzucchelli) ruins his mother's attempts to earn eating money by fumbling his work and allowing himself to be cheated by other boys. All he can think of is going to the circus. Giacomo delivers laundry to Angela, and stops at a grocery to steal some milk. Starved and delirious, the Stranger steals some cheese and accidentally kills the storekeeper when she calls for help. When the police whistles sound, Giacomo thinks he's the one the cops are after. The fugitive boy and Stranger meet up on the run. They dodge a police manhunt all day, and finally find a hideout -- Angela's flat, where she'll soon be bringing her bullying employer.
Stranger on the Prowl was eight minutes longer in its Italian form. We can tell that plenty has been removed from this American version, as the film's impressive flow of images is frequently interrupted by sloppy edits and scene changes that pop up throughout the picture.
Talk about a mix of styles -- by day the movie looks like an Italian Neorealist picture, and after the sun sets a heavy dose of American noir lighting closes in. Location filming in the port cities of Livorno and Taranto gives the show an authenticity beyond the reach of American movies that reconstruct Europe on a back lot. Director Losey ladles on the atmosphere, likeable but downtrodden characters, and a rather unrewarding mood of onrushing tragedy. The picture has little use for narrative distractions or humorous asides -- the only suspense is to find out who dies and who is left alive.
That said, Stranger on the Prowl is handsomely shot and its actors extremely well directed. Losey leans a bit too heavily on the sad Italian faces around the docks, where everyday life for so many seems a fight for survival. But Paul Muni turns out to be terrific at working with just his eyes and body. He enters as a downtrodden everyman, not a bad guy on the run. The kid and the woman played by Vittorio Manunta & Joan Lorring are neatly balanced as deserving individuals, but not idealized innocents. Little Giacomo is cute and sincere but also a realistically selfish little pain-in-the-neck. Like a real kid of five or so, Giacomo has no appreciation of his mother's desperate struggle to provide for him. He knocks her wet laundry on the floor, doesn't help much with his little sister and can't be trusted with money. 2 Angela isn't happy that she's being compromised, but she knows the score and will submit to her boss. She's given herself to a champion bicyclist, and hasn't the sense to realize that the heel has already dumped her.
A big story disruption occurs in the last act that must be the result of missing footage. The Stranger and Giacomo just happen to hole up in the apartment belonging to Angela. But they use a key to enter, and we find that Giacomo knows he's at Angela's place. The Stranger eyes Angela's photos of the bicyclist-boyfriend, and appropriates one of his polo shirts. When Angela comes back, she and the Stranger barely meet each other before they are in each other's arms. That makes some sense, but for a few moments we almost think that they already know each other.
Even without such odd moments Stranger on the Prowl would stilll be rather heavy handed. The Stranger enters with his gun, and we assume he's a wanted criminal. But at the end he says that his only sin is homelessness and having no job. The kid and the young woman add more levels of social injustice, with the strong preying upon the weak. The movie resorts to easy sentiment to soften up the audience. If one wants to get really cynical, it's the kind of show that could be re-titled "Valley of the Shadow", like the gag "art film" that director Joel McCrea so admires at the beginning of Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. But one thing the movie is not is a Communist tract or a criticism of the Capitalist system. There is no suggestion that "the system" is corrupt or needs to be changed. At a major crisis point the tiny Giacomo, surrounded by armed police, stretches out his hands and makes a hopeless plea for nonviolence. In the films of Joseph Losey he suddenly resembles little Dean Stockwell in The Boy with Green Hair or the children herded by troops in These Are the Damned.
The making of the film reveals the insane politics of the blacklist years. Like several other directors named as communists or communist sympathizers, Joseph Losey left the United States for Europe because he feared being hit with a subpoena from the HUAC committee. Writers Ben and Norma Barzman had likewise been named and were already in Paris. They formed a company with director Bernard Vorhaus (The Amazing Mr. X) and convinced Joseph Losey to come over immediately. Losey in turn talked Paul Muni into playing the lead.
These were artists who wanted to make movies and express themselves -- and yes, perhaps their political opinions -- in a free country. But the U.S. State department saw things differently. Naturalized Canadian Ben Barzman was stripped of his American citizenship. He eventually secured a French passport "for the stateless". The government also revoked and seized passports of blacklisted citizens, preventing them from making a living overseas, where they would presumably spread Communist poison. Making the movie in Italy was not an easy thing to do. U.S. diplomats in Italy took a strong anti-communist stance, and saw to it that the names of suspect Americans were published in newspapers, with the inference that they were not to be hired. It was an outright conspiracy of harassment. Without a passport Ben Barzman couldn't leave France to help Losey with the filming. Norma Barzman's passport was seized as well.
When they finally saw the film in Paris the Barzmans thought that Joseph Losey had made Stranger on the Prowl far too corny and sentimental, ruining Ben's screenplay. But they hadn't been there to help him during a shooting, made difficult by Paul Muni's serious health problems. We have to give credit to the actor's skill -- his 'Stranger' seems almost as fit and agile as a Muni character from the 1930s.
Writer Leonardo Bercovici said that American Ambassador to Italy Clare Booth Luce succeeded in expelling most all blacklisted talent trying to work in that country. Joseph Losey left as well. Because the HUAC was never able to serve him with a subpoena, he was able to work in England, where the U.S. witch hunt had less clout.
But many of Losey's close associates ended up in politically tolerant Mexico, including the Barzmans. Only around 1960 did they get their American passports back. Ben Barzman had written for Losey from afar on two movies but the distance harmed their working relationship -- his screenplay for what became These are the Damned was rejected. The ultimate insanity of the politics of the time can be seen when Ben Barzman wrote the script for the epic El Cid. He and Norma were able to work in Franco's Fascist Spain without incident. They were the same artists that the State Department had wanted suppressed ten years before.
Neither Ms. Barzman nor Leonardo Bercovici mention the original story author Noël Calef, who was also the film's credited producer. Louis Malle would adapt Calef's novel Elevator to the Gallows as a hit suspense thriller. A third Calef story would later serve as the source for the hit film that introduced Hayley Mills to the screen, Tiger Bay. The similarities with Stranger on the Prowl are curious: a man on the run in a port city forms a close association with a small child, even as the police close in on him.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Stranger on the Prowl is an excellent HD transfer of a film originally released by United Artists in America. The image has constant small scratches and dings but overall the picture is in very good shape. We can pick out the jump cuts and truncated scenes where material has been taken out. The sound is rough and the interesting music score often wobbly, as if the optical track were poorly made. Most of the dubbing is of good quality. Muni does his own voice, helped by the fact that the movie isn't overburdened with dialogue.
Some older sources reported that for the American release by United Artists, the name Andrea Forzano was credited in place of both director Joseph Losey and writer Ben Barzman. Andrea Forzano was a real Italian writer and director and the film was shot at his studio. The credits on Olive's English-language print will create confusion on this issue. We start with a spliced-on NTA title card, which is clearly replacement for TV prints. There follows a hard cut to a film sequence with superimposed titles, an original English-language export title sequence. Andrea Forzano's name does not appear. But Ben Barzman and Joseph Losey's credits are present and undisturbed. So does this print carry the same credit sequence as United Artists' original release? Posters and lobby cards for the UA release don't even name a director! 3
This picture was for a long time a real rarity. I've never met anyone who has even seen this movie. Stills from it are not exactly numerous, either. For the most part Stranger on the Prowl has existed primarily through discussions in books about director Joseph Losey. It was his odd film out before his career re-birth in England. He initially had to take any job he could get. But in five or six years Losey was established, and by the early 1960s he'd become a top name in art-film circles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stranger on the Prowl Blu-ray rates:
1. The inside story on this show comes from the testimonies of Norma Barzman and Leonardo Bercovici in the book Tender Comrades, McGilligan and Buhle, St Martin's Press, 1997.
2. The delightful Little Fugitive's pint-sized Richie Andrusco has a problem identical to that of little Giacomo. Richie mistakenly thinks the cops are after him for killing his own brother. Like a little noir loser on the run, Richie takes off for Coney Island, perhaps believing he'll be living there for the rest of his life. But otherwise the films couldn't be more different. A good comparison picture that shows up Stranger on the Prowl's artistic shortcomings is Carol Reed's profoundly grim, wickedly humorous Odd Man Out.
3. What with all the questionable credits out there this whole "Andrea Forzano" substitution claim is a confusing mess. I've seen two Italian posters that name Joseph Losey as director... contradicting Norma Barzman's claim that blacklisted Americans were always denied film credits in Italy. But she and Ben Barzman could only have seen the movie in Paris, and at least one French poster does indeed credit Forzano for direction! (full poster above, inset detail to the left).
Supporting the idea that America's UA release saw an Andrea Forzano credit -- as is claimed in official credits lists for the movie -- is the fact that that French poster substituting Forzano's name, has a distribution credit reading "Les Artistes Associes" -- aka United Artists! Perhaps France received the same cut-down version UA prepared for us. That would partially explain the Barzman's frustration when they finally saw the movie in Paris.
I love these elaborate theories, even if so few of them turn out to be true.
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