Hollywood studios in the 1950s — when its underpinnings of entrenched success eroded — yielded a number of fascinating and semi-articulate films. Their culture of work, aesthetics and storytelling was looking down an abyss inconceivable a decade before as some of the best and brightest descended in free fall. To keep a foothold, the dream factories introduced or recombined various adult themes, technical novelties, and repackaging of talent from its golden era in hopes of helping ticket sales.
STRANGER IN MY ARMS is a product of that time and fits the above description. It reintroduces seasoned players, revels in dramatic letterbox compositions, and yet injects enough unsettling, neurotic elements that directs the movie away from the expected lucidity of standard Hollywood product. The film is constructed as a symphony of tensions: of the spaces between, of beats that are missed, of halted intentions. Beyond its construction, the inner thoughts of this Ross Hunter “women’s picture” could be viewed as a meditation on silence: the words not spoken, the judicious wisdom of leaving a remark alone, of not asking for clarification, of time gaps in conversations that beg examination of their origins and motivations. Considering the film was directed by a German liberal humanist who narrowly avoided arrest during the Third Reich, the movie’s prime motivators — a survivor’s intuition of distancing and self-censorship — are not surprising. His motif of tight-lipped repression allows the glossy Hollywood dramatics to play out with a ring of truth.
The film’s blatant melodrama and gothic romance can be attributed to its basis on a novel by Robert Wilder, who previously provided source material for the Douglas Sirk / Ross Hunter epic WRITTEN ON THE WIND and the Joan Crawford vehicle FLAMINGO ROAD. Again Wilder’s narrative addresses dysfunctional abuses of privilege and power in a miasmic, nowhere Southern Gothic town.
The dramatics never get as confrontational as in those other movies, yet the groomed politesse of STRANGER IN MY ARMS has a tangible undertow, as if to say that the cost of engaging on a rarefied level of civility equals abandoning one’s self-direction and honesty, transplanting oneself into fallow fields of an encompassing, agreed-upon constricted misery. (This view ties into the film’s romantic plot: heroine June Allyson plays a woman who lost her husband after a brief marriage, and is now enshrined as a professional widow by a domineering mother-in-law, Mary Astor.)
Virtually all aspects of the film are counterweighted: from exploring the concepts of a brave risk of autonomy against the cautious instincts of survival, to its production aspects of a meretricious product-packaging pairing a leading man on the rise (Jeff Chandler) with a leading lady on the wane (June Allyson). Produced by the man who gave the world Douglas Sirk movies such as MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and IMITATION OF LIFE, the film is yet another counterbalance: it’s Sirk yet not Sirk (the film’s director, Helmut Käutner, was brought from Germany and groomed by Ross Hunter to be another Douglas Sirk). Like the Sirk/Hunter films, STRANGER IN MY ARMS could be taken as a love story with a happy ending or a world view exposing the masturbatory delusions of humankind. The film even strikes that ultimate partial commitment of 1950s Hollywood: it’s a black-and-white film shot in CinemaScope. Color would have been a nice production value which the budget wouldn’t allow, but at least the image was big and wide. In other words, the movie was A-List yet not A-List.
Fifties hunk Jeff Chandler plays Air Force Major Pike Yarnell. He is sought out by Christina (June Allyson), the widow of Donald Beasley (Peter Graves) who died when Yarnell and he were adrift in a life raft during the Korean War. Christina wants more details on her husband’s death; Pike prefers to remain silent.
The patrician Beasley family has clout in Washington and firmly requests Major Yarnell’s presence at the dedication of a memorial to Donald in his small Southern hometown, a top-down order Yarnell couldn’t refuse. He obeys, and after his arrival at the Beasley mansion, family dramas plays off against the visiting stranger.
In the first couple of reels it is actually June Allyson who is given the responsibility, film-wise, for inducing the mood and pace of the movie: a performance at first seeming to halt and hesitate, as if she were out of her depth when not in a cheery M-G-M musical. It soon becomes evident that she’s following a director’s guidance, and the halting delivery displays an internalized hesitancy of self-censorship. Soon the camera set-ups, the blocking, the supporting actors’ deliveries (especially veterans Mary Astor and Conrad Nagel) all support this hesitancy. The tensions and silences are gradually elongated. The spaces between the words begin to mirror the empty deep space of cinematographer William Daniels’ lighting schemes and camera angles; the ensemble’s pauses in line delivery conjoin with the beats and intentions of the of the larger film canvas. It’s a metered rhythm seldom heard in in commercial film work.
Allyson had previously worked with Sirk on INTERLUDE, as a tourist in Vienna becoming involved with a married orchestra conductor. Yet, in that Sirk movie she was an embodiment of American innocence abroad, with Hunter perpetuating her trademark perkiness in coif and costume despite the film’s Sirkian darkness. As a corrective, here she’s stylistically toned-down with a short, chic haircut and form-hugging wardrobe. (Perhaps also as a counterweight to the presence of light-hearted and creamy Sandra Dee as her sister-in-law.)
[It's almost schizophrenic to see seventeen-year-old Sandra Dee pick up the hero on the street in record time by walking up, lighting his cigarette and dragging him to the nearest bar. This was the same year as GIDGET and Sirk's version of IMITATION OF LIFE where her virginal character wondered if a girl should let a boy kiss her.]
The story’s conflict butts Mary Astor as the family matriarch against Jeff Chandler as she lobbies for her son to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, which Chandler politely yet firmly suggests is inappropriate. Chandler holds secrets from those days on the life raft, both as to the confessions of his buddy and the real cause of his death.
Allyson’s character, the professional widow living with her in-laws, is the person most marginalized, trapped and overadapted — and director Käutner introduces her in scenes via expansive and alienating deep space. Chandler, on the other hand, is constantly interrogated and put on the spot, and the director uses flat space and tight shots for his scene intros. The fulcrum of this psychological teeter-totter is the family’s hyperinflation of their dead soldier’s memory that’s fueled by comforting fictions overly-controlling humans love to embrace. (Who better to see through corny heroics and jingoist, fact-altering claptrap than a Third Reich survivor?)
In a final, gorgeously photographed showdown Chandler tells the family their son wasn’t lost at sea but committed suicide, also telling Allyson her husband’s confession: she was brought into a loveless marriage he arranged as a tool to distance himself from his mother’s control.
All of this subject matter could have gone wildly hysterical in the hands of some, but Käutner’s Germanic sensibility keeps the proceedings understated. Like vonStroheim, information is telegraphed by the use or fetishization of bric-a-brac and household objects. Like Preminger, cultivated looks and well-chosen words speak louder than histrionics. And like Sirk, visual irony is everywhere: in Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS Jane Wyman’s character is most confused and counterintuitive when the sunlight from stained glass illuminates her face (a symbol in Catholicism of insight and revelation), while in STRANGER IN MY ARMS the most illuminating scene — where Chandler sheds light on false assumptions — is played in an ink-dark, closed-for-the-night hotel bar.
After this movie Käutner, who made the lacerating examination of wartime Germany, 1947′s IN THOSE DAYS (IN JENEN TAGEN) returned to Europe and never made another Hollywood film. What a pity, since this movie, made the year Douglas Sirk retired from Hollywood, might have continued Sirk’s intellectual money machine of thoughtful sensationalism. As it stands, this work by Helmut Käutner shows the striking ability to put on film the rhythmed insight of someone who sees too much, who sees through the crap in the world. The final, overarching counterweight of this film is that the director cut through the bullshit of the bullshit he was directing.