Director Anthony Mann (Cimarron, Side Street) was only a handful of films into his lengthy career when he made Strangers in the Night, a slight melodrama attempting to cash in on the sea spray and shadows that made Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca a big hit a few years earlier.
Released in 1944, Strangers in the Night stars William Terry as Sergeant Johnny Meadows, a soldier discharged from the front after a back injury. Johnny has spent his tour of duty writing a girl he's never seen. Rosemary Blake donated a copy of A Shropshire Lad, a collection of poems that was popular with fighting men, to the Red Cross and put her name and address inside the cover. Johnny wrote her to thank her for the book, and they struck up a correspondence. Now that he's back in the states, Johnny goes to California to meet her, only to find she is not at the cliffside home she shares with her mother (Helene Thimig) and their servant (Edith Barrett, Jane Eyre). No explanation is offered for why Rosemary is gone, she just isn't there.
Further complicating matters, the town has a new doctor, and she's a rather attractive woman. Dr. Leslie Ross (Virginia Grey, The Naked Kiss) immediately rubs old Mrs. Blake the wrong way, but she also rubs Johnny the right way. They met on the train when Johnny spotted that she also had a copy of A Shropshire Lad and thought maybe fate had thrown him another curveball. Mrs. Blake doesn't want this pretty lady doc messing up her plans for her daughter. What will the disturbed old spinster do to stop romance from blossoming while Rosemary is absent from the scene?
Strangers in the Night's story is credited to Philip MacDonald, who was also one of the credited writers on Rebecca, so the comparisons are probably partially intentional. Big houses, maids with mysterious secrets, longing for an absent love--these are all fairly common elements in gothic romances. The main problem with Strangers in the Night is there is no real love story here, nor is there much of a mystery. Even at a scant 56 minutes, the movie goes on too long, drawing out the build-up to the revelation of Rosemary's true whereabouts long after most viewers will have figured it out on their own. The clues the old ladies drop aren't exactly subtle. This would be fine if the reveal itself wasn't so tepidly staged and dully performed (there's a reason why this cast is mostly unknown). Strangers in the Night is a cinematic watched pot (i.e. it never boils).
The one positive is that at least the movie looks great. Anthony Mann was already an efficient storyteller, and cinematographer Reggie Lanning (Sands of Iwo Jima) takes a non-fussy approach to each frame, saving the trickier shots for when they best enhance the story. Any of the paranoia the film does manage to muster is almost entirely down to his camera spying through half-opened doors, lurking in the shadows and eavesdropping on whispered schemes. It's just too bad Strangers in the Night never goes further in, content instead to stay on the outside of a tale that is really all about the interior. A psychological thriller has to be about more than the surface, there actually has to be something hiding in the dark corners for when the light is finally turned in their direction.