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Not as a Stranger (DVD Review)

25 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Grahame.

The high-profile adaptation of Morton Thompson’s novel remains, whatever else it is or isn’t, a conversation piece on several levels. It was the movie version of the previous year’s best-selling piece of fiction, published after the author’s 1953 death; it marked the first time that famed producer Stanley Kramer ever directed (never his natural habitat); it put Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him part) in the same med-school class of heavy smokers — and at jarringly advanced ages; and it boasted five Oscar-winning actors (one a double winner) in its line-up — some of them in unsuitable roles.

Most miscast of all, Sinatra probably excepted, was Mitchum — who never won an Oscar but did give an Oscar-worthy performance the same year in The Night of the Hunter, a prodigious box office flop but eventual classic that came out a couple months later from the same distributor. The projection of idealism didn’t exactly play to Mitchum’s strengths, and here he’s playing a financially impoverished hopeful who won’t allow himself to make or at least admit mistakes — mouthing off in class to his superiors when he thinks they’ve made an ethical misstep.

Because he’s so strapped, Mitchum marries an older nurse he doesn’t love — an odd role for Olivia de Havilland (once Maid Marian to Errol Flynn’s Robin, but seen here in rigidly pulled-back Peroxided hair and something short of the most attractive makeup job you’ll ever see). The actress’s hugely deserved Oscar-winning performances also played down her beauty: To Each His Own (where she graduated from luminous to middle-aged crusty over the course of two screen hours) and William Wyler’s supreme The Heiress, where her plainness is among the major points of the story. But though her character’s lack of compatibility with Mitchum here is a key part of the dynamic that Thompson set up, the two seem so plain-out weird as a couple that it throws off the movie’s rhythm.

I used to read a lot of sprawling novels on summer vacation during my elementary and junior-high years, and my recollection is that the early parts of Thompson’s hefty tome (for which I have good memories from the summer between seventh and eighth grade) got jettisoned by screenwriters Edward and Edna Anhalt. Even at this, the picture runs a never really gripping but passably zippy 2 hours and 17 minutes, despite suffering from a tendency to shoehorn bulging material into one movie. Without too much running time to go, we get de Havilland’s secret pregnancy; a typhoid epidemic; Mitchum’s small-town adultery (with Gloria Grahame – this time a case where the actress is almost too ideally cast); open heart surgery involving a major character; and Mitchum’s attempts to save an elderly patient that another doctor has pretty well left to die.

Some of the small and two of the larger supporting roles are very well cast: one predictably and one a surprise. The predictable one is Charles Bickford as the veteran doctor who takes Mitchum under his wing; Bickford was always great at playing authority figures. The surprise is Broderick Crawford as the Jewish med school prof allowed to teach at the university as part of the five per cent Jewish “quota”; I think he’s better here than in his Oscared All the King’s Men career piece, a performance (and for that matter, movie) that to me has always seemed boilerplate. The limited strong points Stranger boasts deal predominantly with inside stuff like the then Jewish question — also doctors who don’t keep up on the current literature or those who are most concerned about the price tag on their performed surgeries. The worst scene has to be the famous howler where Mitchum and Grahame make it after a whinny-ing (or possibly hot-and-bothered) horse is allowed to escape his containment in the latter’s fancy barn.

In keeping with the materialism issue, you just know that Sinatra (whose character is basically sympathetic) is going to be the kind of doc who, at the end, ends up driving a white Caddy convertible that classic car collectors of today would salivate to own. This is a perfect example of how a performance that is on its own amusing (Frank in med school) cannot at all be taken seriously, to the detriment of the overall movie. One can conceivably imagine a Sinatra all-nighter with a Vegas cocktail waitress — but not one where he crams for, say, a spleen exam. On the other hand, the frequently hapless Kramer almost immediately cast the singer as a Spaniard in their hall-of-fame stinker The Pride and the Passion, which makes this movie look pretty respectable. Just think: if Sinatra had ever recorded an album called Ol’ Azul Ojos Is Back, it might even have surpassed that Mitchum Calypso LP.

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