Hollywood studios in the 1950s — when its underpinnings of entrenched success eroded — yielded a number of fascinating 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 adult themes, technical novelties, and talent from its golden era in hopes of boosting 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 divert the movie from the expected lucidity and tidiness of the previous decades’ Hollywood product. The film is constructed as a symphony of tensions: of spaces between, of beats that are missed, of halted intentions. Beyond its construction, the thoughts within this Ross Hunter “women’s picture” could be viewed on their own as a meditation on silence: the words not spoken, the wisdom of leaving a remark untouched, of not asking for clarification. Considering the film was directed by a German liberal humanist who narrowly avoided arrest during the Third Reich, this movie’s psychological McGuffin — a survivor’s intuition of self-censorship and distancing himself from conflict — has an unusually clear ring of truth at the core of this glossy Hollywood soap opera material.
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. Once more, 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 perhaps an even stronger and tangible struggle: an undertow that seems to say that the cost of engaging on a rarefied level of civility and propriety can quickly equal abandoning one’s self-direction and honesty, by transplanting oneself into fallow fields of self-censorship and an agreed-upon constricted misery. (The film’s romantic heroine lives this situation: June Allyson plays a woman who lost her husband after a brief marriage, and ever since has been enshrined as a professional widow by her domineering mother-in-law, Mary Astor.)
Fifties hunk Jeff Chandler plays Air Force Major Pike Yarnell, who 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 can’t refuse. He obeys, and on his arrival at the Beasley mansion, family dramas plays off against the reluctant, visiting stranger.
Mary Astor, the family matriarch, lobbies Jeff Chandler 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 the intimate confessions of his buddy and the true, unheroic cause of his death.
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 larger film canvas. It’s a metered rhythm seldom heard 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.]
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 between Allyson and Chandler is the hyperinflation of the dead soldier’s memory, fueled by the comforting fictions that his overly-controlling family 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 arranged by her husband as a tool to distance himself from his mother’s domination.
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 Stroheim, 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 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 and spills the truth — is played in an ink-dark, closed-for-the-night hotel bar.
Virtually all aspects of this film are counterweighted: from the script’s concepts of balancing a brave risk of autonomy against the cautious instincts of survival, to its Hollywood packaging of 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 itself is another counterbalance, because it’s a Sirk movie yet not a Sirk movie (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 narcissistic delusions of humankind. 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 the Hunter/Sirk’s intellectual money machine of thoughtful sensationalism. As it stands, this work by Helmut Käutner shows his striking ability to 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.