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Why was the name Val Lewton so well known in Hollywood circles? Because the influence of his low-budget horror films for RKO was strongly felt in thrillers, spy shows and mysteries. Impressed with the way audiences reacted to Lewton's movies, other producers and directors made use of dramatic understatement, and tried to make their characters seem more like everyday people.
That tentative introduction leads us to a little known Republic Pictures mystery thriller from the middle of WW2. Our initial interest centers on director Anthony Mann. It's his fifth film feature and his first that can be classified as at least partially noir. Compared to Joseph H. Lewis's My Name is Julia Ross (a mini-masterpiece) or William Castle's When Strangers Marry (strained but quirky), 1944's Strangers in the Night is nobody's idea of great filmmaking. But in Olive Films' flawless Blu-ray edition, it's an excellent candidate for study.
Recovering from a back wound in the South Pacific, Marine Sgt. Johnny Meadows (William Terry, the 'discovery' of Stage Door Canteen) writes to a girl, Rosemary Blake whose name he finds in a book of poetry. They fall in love via mail, and when Johnny returns to the States to recuperate he comes to visit her in Monteflores. On the way he meets the beautiful Dr. Leslie Ross (Virginia Grey), and helps her tend to the injured during a train derailment. As it turns out, Leslie is the doctor for Rosemary's mother, Hilda (Helene Thimig). As Rosemary is away for a few days Johnny stays at the imposing Blake mansion, poised on top of an ocean cliff. It is soon revealed that Hilda is hiding the truth about Rosemary. She insists that everyone, including her live-in friend Ivy Miller (Edith Barrett) worship the girl's portrait as she does, and goes vague whenever questioned about the exact day Rosemary will be returning. Is Hilda unhinged? She holds poor Ivy in a state of barely suppressed terror. When it becomes obvious that Johnny and Leslie are becoming an item, Hilda seems capable of murder. But will our young couple discover the old woman's secret in time?
Strangers in the Night's story credit points to Philip MacDonald, a screenwriter on the classic mysteries Rebecca, The Dark Past and Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher. The co-screenwriter Paul Gangelin has impressive credits as well, and contributes some natural-sounding dialogue. Seen today, the movie is a familiar twist story, where the twist can be guessed almost before it is set up. Hilda Blake displays a huge portrait of the beautiful Rosemary, whose face we never clearly see. The fancy portrait is the centerpiece of a fantasy-delusion, one that the wealthy Hilda expects everyone around her to subscribe to on her say-so alone. Johnny and Leslie are just beginning an uncomplicated, possibly very happy relationship. Leslie has already incurred Hilda's displeasure, just for being a woman doctor: Hilda expected another male visitor, the better to adore the sacred Rosemary.
As a stack of mystery elements Strangers in the Night is unusually transparent. Hilda's house is located at the top of a cliff that King Kong would have difficulty climbing. It looks like a giant Southern mansion, yet a 1500-foot drop is just a few yards from the front door, and marked only by a rickety old guardrail. We feel sorry for the mailman in a high wind, and wonder what army of daredevils built the thing in the first place. Do you think that precarious cliff might play a dramatic role later on in the picture? The house is represented by what may be the most amateurish matte painting ever... the film apparently didn't merit that kind of expenditure.
I can't prove that Strangers in the Night was inspired by Val Lewton's movies but there are some interesting connections. The best actor in the picture is the wonderful Edith Barrett, who plays pivotal roles in Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie and The Ghost Ship; her Ivy's psychological domination by Hilda seems directly linked to one of the sad relationships in Lewton's The Seventh Victim. Not as concrete is the film's insistence that every character be based in workaday realities. Johnny knows he'll have to sort out his life and find out what he wants to do after the fighting's over. Leslie must deal with the fact that many people won't accept her as a qualified doctor. Ivy is trapped in a relationship in which humoring another person's fantasy has turned into an unhealthy psychological domination.
The film progresses in fits and starts, adding digressions like the train wreck to demonstrate to the audience that lady doctors are indeed legit. Johnny at first appeases the imposing Hilda, when a simple request for a straight answer (where the ___ is Rosemary?) would wrap things up a lot more quickly. Refreshingly, Dr. Leslie doesn't indulge Hilda's mind games at all. As this is a mystery thriller, Leslie's non-cooperation gives Hilda another reason to contemplate murder.
William Terry is more than pleasant, lacking only some kind of distinctive edge to make him memorable. Veteran supporting actress Virginia Grey did the femme equivalent of spear-carrying in MGM pictures of the late 1930s, and was just beginning a long career of leading roles in second-tier productions. The beautiful Ms. Grey projected charm and intelligence in noir and genre thrillers that would never win industry acclaim: House of Horrors, Unknown Island, The Threat, Highway 301, Target: Earth, Crime of Passion, Black Zoo.
As a stage star in Germany before the Nazis came to power, Helene Thimig was the equivalent of Helen Hayes. She followed Max Reinhardt first to Vienna and then to America in 1937, where she played in a number of anti-Nazi films. Reinhardt died in 1943. Before returning to Germany Helene also played in a Val Lewton picture, Isle of the Dead. Quality directors sought her out: she has interesting parts in Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger (soon to be an Olive Films Blu-ray), John Brahm's The Locket and Anatole Litvak's Decision Before Dawn.
Strangers in the Night doesn't conclude in a particularly graceful way, and the kind thing to say is that Anthony Mann must not yet have had the authority to rework his scripts. In fact it's pretty amusing when we hear a pair of off-screen screams that cause Hilda to assume that the "unworthy" Johnny and Leslie have taken the Big Drop from her doorstep.
Oh, and don't let the title fool you, as there's no relationship between this show and Frank Sinatra's hit tune that came along twenty years later. As a parting shot, reverse the sex of the "missing sweetheart" plot hook and change a few particulars, and Strangers in the Night isn't that far removed from the effective Hammer horror suspense offering Die! Die! My Darling! Both films have scenes in which an "imprisoned" woman tries to sneak a letter pleading for help into the mail pickup.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Strangers in the Night is a sparkling transfer of this now-obscure thriller -- I doubt anybody's seen it looking or sounding this pristine since it was new. Olive's package artwork is to be commended, especially after regarding Republic's original, terrible poster design (above).
Anthony Mann's next noir effort, the bizarre thriller Strange Impersonation was also a Republic release. But it may be too much to hope for an Olive Films Blu-ray, as Kino VIdeo has had that title for a number of years.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Strangers in the Night Blu-ray rates:
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