Morton Thompson’s Not as a Stranger (1955)

vt Not as a Stranger
US / 136 minutes / bw / Kramer, UA Dir & Pr: Stanley Kramer Scr: Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt Story: Not as a Stranger (1954) by Morton Thompson Cine: Franz Planer Cast: 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, William Vedder, John Dierkes, Jerry Paris, Juanita Moore.

Kramer’s first movie as a director has little noirish interest outside its cast, which is crowded out with major and minor contributors to the genre, such as Mitchum, Grahame, de Havilland, Sinatra, Crawford, Morgan, Marvin, Christine and a number of familiar faces among the extensive list of uncredited actors. Its source, Thompson’s novel, was a whopping medical drama exploring the same thematic territory that the UK author A.J. Cronin had mapped out a quarter of a century earlier in novels like The Citadel (1937).

Lucas “Luke” Marsh (Mitchum) is a medical student dedicated to the point of obsession in his studies at a big-city teaching hospital; unfortunately, his father Job (Chaney) has drunk all of Luke’s inheritance from his mother and, though Luke’s tutor Dr. Aarons (Crawford) and best pal Alfred “Al” Boone (Sinatra) lend him some money toward paying his fees, it’s only enough for the hospital bursar (Dierkes) to give him a 30-day extension before, unless he finds the rest, he’ll be expelled.

Not as a Stranger - Pic 1

Robert Mitchum as Luke Marsh with Gloria Grahame as the predatory widow Harriet Lang: “They always warn you about solitary drinking,” she purrs at him, “but they never tell you how to get people to stay up and drink with you.”

Shy Swedish–American nurse Kristina “Kris” Hedvigson (de Havilland) worships the ground Luke treads on; so far as he’s concerned, she’s just an older woman who’s kind enough to help him from time to time. (In fact, de Havilland was just a year or so older than the supposedly student-age Mitchum. Sinatra was actually older than de Havilland.) But, at a smorgasbord party that Kris throws, her friend Bruni (Christine) brags that Kris has extensive savings; soon, to the horror of Al, Luke marries Kris for her money. Despite being loveless on his side, the marriage works in its way; even though Luke continues to regard medicine as the first woman in his life, his drivenness sometimes upsetting to Kris, she stands by him in all things as he graduates as, according to Aarons, one of the best students the hospital has ever had . . . although Aarons is also at pains to point out that Luke could do with developing some fellow-feeling for those around him: his ceaseless quest for perfection in his own work, and his intolerance for professional sloppiness or mercenariness in those around him, is making him no friends.

Luke and Kris go to Greenville, a town somewhere in the sticks, where Luke practices under elderly country physician Dave Runkleman (Bickford), who becomes a significant friend. Together they cope with the incompetence of Dr. Snider (McCormick), head of the Greenville hospital; in a dramatic sequence Luke correctly diagnoses an old man whom Snider was merely leaving to die as being infected with typhoid, isolates him and then, with Kris as nurse, manages to save the patient’s life.

When Luke is called to treat the husband of Clara Bassett (Moore), a stable hand at a nearby stud farm, he meets Harriet Lang (Grahame), the sexually aware widow who runs the place. It’s lust at first sight, but they manage to fend it off until one night when Luke is again called to see Clara’s husband. In one of cinema’s more hilarious sex scenes, as Luke and Harriet are circling each other with carnal intent, a stallion is creating a rumpus in its stall because there’s a receptive mare lurking in the field nearby. Luke ostentatiously frees the beast from its captivity, then, as the stallion leaps a fence en route to the mare, goes into a clinch with Harriet. Oh, the subtlety.

Not as a Stranger - Luke releases the other stallion

Luke (Robert Mitchum) releases the stallion. Symbolism or what?

Kris has been trying to tell Luke that she’s pregnant; eventually Al, visiting from the city, breaks the news to Luke who, as it happens, has just ended his affair with Harriet. Kris, realizing what he’s been up to, throws him out of the house. Then old Dr. Runkleman ruptures his aorta, luckily while doing rounds at the hospital, and it’s up to Luke and Snider to try to save him . . .

The movie’s overlong, its central section being beefed up unnecessarily by little vignettes of medical life in Greenville and the pacing of some of its later sections seeming languorous almost to the point of tedium. Everyone smokes almost incessantly—at one point we find a patient in the men’s ward sucking on a major-league stogie, while even the staff happily puff their cigarettes all over the hospital. The music, by George Antheil, manages, like good soundtracks should, to make its presence felt only at the moments when it’s most needed. Grahame had undergone yet another of those surgical operations on her upper lip to which she seemed addicted; while she acts well enough, the lip seems oversized and often to be slick with sweat. Mitchum and Sinatra stay well within their comfort zones, but de Havilland is most impressive as the brilliant nurse who’s also a reserved, slightly stolid woman, fluent in but ever seeming slightly unfamiliar with the English language, who wants nothing more than to be loved as much by her husband as she loves him.

Not as a Stranger was well received by both public and critics on release, but its reputation has—probably undeservedly—faded almost entirely away.


On Not As A Stranger

21 thoughts on “Morton Thompson’s Not as a Stranger (1955)

    • Good luck finding it! I got the copy I watched from the library. I noticed when doing the Amazon link today that the DVD’s a bit pricey.

      On a completely different topic, is it possible to subscribe for email alerts to Stranger? I tend to forget to check the WordPress Reader thingie!

      • Yep, just spent the last half hour trying to find this film online. No joy! And yes, you should be able to subscribe at your end. I’m not sure if it’s possible at my end to customise my new post alerts. But it’s no problem for me to alert you manually either via WordPress or Twitter. Thanks for taking an interest.

        • Can’t be done at this end.

          When I was setting up this site, I found a widget in the dashboard (jeez, but WP’s terminology is confusing!) that let me give people the option of getting email alerts whenever I stuck up a new post.

  1. I too am unfamiliar with this particular film, but for me the fact that it is Stanley Kramer’s first film is a deal breaker. I like several Kramer works that others have either dismissed or expressed indifference for, especially BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN based on Swarthout’s novel. Yes the cast is most impressive too, and few would want to pass up a Mitchum lead. I’ll certainly get to it, and no small reason because of your extraordinarily written and observed essay!

    • To be honest, I’m surprised it’s so little known — it was only after I’d watched it that I discovered this! I know I saw it years ago, probably on UK TV — it was that long ago! But with a cast like this, even if the movie were garbage you’d not expect it to drop off the radar.

      Oh, and thanks for the link — just popped up.

      • John, to be honest it isn’t known by all that many people and it flopped at the box office. It did retain some serious regard by educators who for years championed Swarthout’s novel. It’s about the sanctity of life in the shadow of hunters who kill for sport. It has always struck a chord with me.

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  5. Am watching this right now on YouTube. Never heard of it before, but hoped you’d covered it. And you have, I guess the Mitchum character has a noirish intensity, but as you noted, the noir is mostly in the cast list.

    • Yep: It was the Mitchum, Crawford, Marvin and (yahey!) Grahame lineup that pulled me to the movie. It has a few noirish moments, but is essentially a soap opera. I’d say Grahame’s character has a sort of noirish slant to it, too.

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