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Not as a Stranger

by Glenn Erickson Jan 09, 2018

 

What? Doctors aren’t perfect? And some practicing doctors are incompetent? Stanley Kramer’s All-Star medical soap opera takes two unlikely students (Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra) through med school and confronts them with a number of pat dramatic complications. But the movie belongs to top-billed Olivia de Havilland, who lends a touch of class to the entire iffy enterprise.


Not as a Stranger
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1955 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 135 min. / Street Date January 9, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford, Charles Bickford, Myron McCormick, Lon Chaney Jr., Jesse White, Harry Morgan, Lee Marvin, Virginia Christine, Whit Bissell, Jack Raine, Mae Clarke, John Dierkes, King Donovan, Franklyn Farnum, Paul Guilfoile, Nancy Kulp, Harry Lauter, Juanita Moore, Jerry Paris, Stafford Repp, Carl Switzer, Will Wright.
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Film Editor: Fred Knutson
Original Music: George Antheil
Written by Edna and Edward Anhalt, from the novel by Morton Thompson
Produced and Directed by
Stanley Kramer

 

Stanley Kramer has been kicked around by the critics seemingly forever. The pilloried him for making (in their view) faux-profound ‘important’ movies about important liberal issues, forever acting all hot & bothered by a social problem being debated with more finesse elsewhere. Definitely a major player and a master at promotion, Kramer made America think that he invented liberal outrage about racism and the persistence of Nazis in the postwar world. He also gave us the accomplished pictures High Noon, The Wild One, Member of the Wedding and The Caine Mutiny. His nuclear doom ‘n’ gloom picture On the Beach performed a public service by bolstering the Ban The Bomb movement. And his It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is still a one of a kind comedy epic.

After The Caine Mutiny Kramer ended his first Columbia deal, moved to United Artists and made the jump to directing. As the old saying goes, as a director he was a very good producer. His first picture Not as a Stranger is a shrewdly calculated film where all the money went into the property and an All Star cast. Critics liked the roster of talent but felt some roles were miscast. What’s really wrong is that director Kramer, the champion of sophisticated entertainment, alternates between good moments and others that are corny to the point of embarrassment.

 

Thinking big, Kramer optioned Morton Thompson’s best seller and condensed its 700 pages into two hours and fifteen minutes, a considerable sprawl for 1955. The book may or may not ‘rip the lid off the medical profession’ but the rather tame film simply shows that doctors aren’t perfect and subjects us to frequent shallow lectures about Medical Ethics. I’m not sure what the title means, literally, but it rolls of the tongue nicely.

Eager students Lucas Marsh and Alfred Boone (Robert Mitchum & Frank Sinatra) struggle through Med School under the stern tutelage of instructor Dr. Aarons (Broderick Crawford). But when Lucas’s drunken father Job (Lon Chaney Jr.) squanders his tuition money, Lucas pays the only way he can, by wooing and marrying a slightly older nurse, Kristina Hedvigson (Olivia de Havilland). Boone is concerned that his friend is an unemotional user, but Aarons admires Lucas for speaking out against a doctor who performs discredited procedures (Whit Bissell). At graduation Boone takes a potentially lucrative position in town, while Lucas and Kristina move to the small town of Greenville to work at the busy practice of Dr. Dave Runkleman (Charles Bickford). Lucas throws himself into his work and discovers that medical troubles are everywhere — the head of the local clinic, Dr. Clem Snider (Myron McCormick) is wholly incompetent. Kris soon intuits that Lucas doesn’t really love her, and is afraid to tell him when she becomes pregnant. Making things worse, Lucas starts seeing Harriet Lang (Gloria Grahame), a seductive local looking for a lover.

 

Kramer doesn’t seem to know that he’s making a mediocre soap opera, which at first is a good thing — the first scene is a camp hoot. Broderick Crawford barges onscreen to snarl out his anatomy lesson over a cadaver, the sight of which makes one student gag. “Gentlemen, this is a corpse!” he shouts, as if he were still telling his Highway Patrol officers to ‘set up a roadblock here!’ Edna and Edward Anhalt’s screenplay is at least 20% Cliffs Notes condensations of ethical debates. The other med students include Jerry Paris and Lee Marvin; they cluster in a strange shot to trade venal remarks about how best to get rich once they become doctors. Dr. Aarons tells Lucas Marsh that he didn’t have it easy, either, in that he was discriminated against for being a Jew. Yet Aarons accepts that his hospital has an incompetent doctor, just as Runkleman later accepts that his superior is a quack who goes blank during operations and is too lazy to properly diagnose elderly patients he thinks haven’t long to live. The Anhalt script introduces, and then drops, one example after another of needed medical reform . . . indeed, the story’s only ‘lesson’ is for Lucas to learn that he isn’t perfect either.

None of this is subtle. Stanley Kramer’s direction would later become more assured, but his work here is pretty weak. ‘Time passing’ sequences of learning and practicing are lame montages, often with lamer jokes that criticize the patients. When Lucas experiences an emotional breakdown, the overdone music track rises as he walks down an empty street, pausing to pose dramatically under a lone street light. One sequence is one of the most amateurish bits of direction of the decade. At the horse farm, Dr. Marsh and the sexy Harriet Lang are directly compared to a mare and a stallion that are champing at the bit to get at each other and make little horses together. To signal his surrender to adultery, Lucas opens the gate and lets the white mare out. Do ya think that might be . . . symbolic? We know that Kramer is intelligent and fairly sophisticated, and cares about quality, but this picture and his next are still best known for awkward casting and strange directorial judgments.

 

Good acting makes Not as a Stranger play well enough in most scenes. Olivia de Havilland is excellent as a dignified, sweet nurse with a good Swedish accent. She must carry the emotional story because Robert Mitchum’s acting style makes him seem to0 controlled and aloof. His character is supposed to be a cold fish, but his final emotional breakdown needs something else, probably better direction. As for De Havilland, she’s perfect in almost every one scene. Kramer unfortunately stages a terrible 5-cent ‘big moment’ where her Kristina tears up the baby clothes she’s been knitting and begins to sob. I guess Kramer wanted to make sure that the blind & deaf audience understood the moment, too.

Frank Sinatra glides through the picture underplaying a secondary role that doesn’t give him much to do except be noble. His comedy bit lampooning Dr. Aarons is misjudged. More than one of Sinatra’s close-ups is slightly out of focus, leading us to wonder if he was already declining to do second takes when the cameraman wanted insurance. Perhaps Sinatra accepted the part of an upstanding medico, to counter possible blowback from his role as a drug addict the same year.

Both Mitchum and Sinatra seem far too old to be med students. The supporting actors put in fine work, especially Bickford as an old sawbones with a bad ticker, and Myron McCormick’s flawed chief of medics. Broad direction makes most of the others too obvious — Virginia Christine is spot-on as a fellow Norwegian, but Harry Morgan is awkward as her yumpin’-yiminy clown of a husband. Lon Chaney is okay in a one-shot appearance, and the great Jesse White does what he can as a lawyer with a big mouth, racing through crude dialogue criticizing the medical profession. Lee Marvin is happy to be acting in scenes with the big boys, watching a medical lecture as if he were learning about the next mission for the Dirty Dozen. Perhaps the arrogant surgeon Whit Bissell was indeed thrown out of the profession, which would explain why he’d be patching corpses together a couple of years later, for I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.

 

That leaves Gloria Grahame, one of the decade’s hottest femme fatales, as a tepid temptress in what becomes a painfully joyless illicit love affair. Both Lucas and Harriet behave guilty as hell for getting together behind Olivia de Havilland’s back. Grahame says the lines well, and has a casual-fiery stare that never fails, but her only purpose is to be an immediate regret for the wayward doctor. This was about the time that Grahame’s career was doing odd things. She reportedly tucked tissue paper under her upper lip to enhance a ‘pouty’ look, but it makes her face look swollen. At least she doesn’t wear the shiny, greasy-looking makeup of the next year’s The Man Who Never Was — that makes her look like a Typhoid Fever case.

Stanley Kramer slips Juanita Moore in there, in a dignified bit role; that and the mention of discrimination against Jews fulfills the film’s liberal firebrand quota. Actually, the most progressive scene now is one where Mitchum’s doctor tells his wife that she’s a great nurse and ought to go back to nursing because she’s needed — in 1955 every other film preached the lesson that women ought to quit their jobs when they marry.

Director Kramer must have spent all the money on his cast because the production otherwise looks cheap. Most scenes take place in fairly dull windowless rooms; when in doubt, he goes in for a close-up. A couple of exteriors of the ‘University Medical Building’ I recognize as filmed on the UCLA campus. But the first shot looks down a standing hospital corridor set, one designed never to be seen this empty. Most of the corridor is a fake perspective painted backdrop, and Kramer’s doesn’t distract us from it as would any competent director.

A lot of effort is expended on a final big operation scene, beginning with a truck-in, truck-out shot to what looks like a living, breathing heart. . . is it the heart of an animal, manipulated with electricity? Mitchum’s desperate surgeon pushes his luck a little too far in the hart operation, and ends up struggling to save the day like a golfer trying to get out of a sand trap. Barking orders, he tries one desperate fix after another . . . we almost expect him to shout, ‘Fire the explosive bolt!’ like Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Not as a Stranger is a good but not exceptional encoding of this B&W production. The reasonably sharp and well graded HD transfer has quite a bit of dirt, digs and other flaws. With so much of the picture shot in flat lighting in dull sets, it’s not very attractive or visually exciting. This seems strange in that as a producer Stanley Kramer usually stressed graphic values. He storyboarded almost everything.

The interesting composer George Antheil brings class to the production, but Kramer uses him for obvious melodramatic cues, plus a ‘big drama’ piece to accompany Lucas Marsh’s ‘important’ walk across town at the climax. A lot of great talent is here, but not used to its full potential.

Troy Howarth provides a feature commentary that spends most of its time on bios of the stars — one has to admit that there’s plenty to talk about on that score — and observations about the storyline. A stack of Kino trailers are present as well.

The weird foreign poster art on the disc cover makes Frank Sinatra look like a cross between Fred Astaire and James Stewart. That’s okay, as original U.S. poster uses a simple sketch of a surgeon that looks like it belongs on a medical brochure. The idea must have been not to take attention away from all those big names. Note that none of the stars is billed above the title. Stanley Kramer’s name is above the title, and is repeated in the credit block in a font twice the size of the actors’.

I saw most of Stanley Kramer’s movies as an undergraduate at UCLA. He donated his personal collection of prints to the Film Archive and his creative keepsakes to the Research Library, where I enjoyed studying the complex storyboards for his noir thriller The Sniper. I saw Kramer in person when he brought his (not very good) latest feature Bless the Beasts and Children to UCLA’s Melnitz Hall. He gave a speech as if angry that he hadn’t been recognized as the greatest filmmaker of the modern age; maybe he was just reacting to a bunch of film students already conditioned to love the other director named Stanley and to dismiss this one. But he also brought an excellent 35mm clip reel of all his pictures, which was a treat.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Not as a Stranger Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Troy Howarth, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 7, 2018
(5629stra)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.