Strangers in the Night: Meet Rosemary's Mother (and Then Run Away!)
May 14, 2014
The Strangers in the Night screening at the Billy Wilder Theater I attended on February 5 of this year took me by surprise - I found out the film was playing hours before as part of UCLA Film and Television Archive's Dark City, Open Country: The Films of Anthony Mann retrospective. Though a Jazzercise class occupied my evening schedule (that is not a lie), once I read UCLA's summary of the film, featuring the words "inky noir style" and "deadly psychological nightmare," my original plans had been overturned. With a brisk 56 minute runtime, Strangers in the Night did not let down. At all. In fact, there wasn't enough time for it to!
Strangers in the Night opens on a WWII base somewhere with gorgeous palm trees. That's about the only nice thing within eyesight, as Sgt. Johnny Meadows (William Terry) lies in the medical tent, badly wounded. Letters from Rosemary Blake, whose name and address he found in a book from the Red Cross, are the only way he’s getting through. Though he has not met her or even seen her picture, Johnny finds himself on a train to Rosemary’s tiny California town after being discharged. En route he meets Dr. Leslie Ross (Virginia Grey), who just so happens to be the new doctor in aforementioned town. What a small world!
Conveniently, Rosemary isn't at home when Johnny arrives, but her invalid mother, Hilda Blake (Helene Thimig), and Hilda's companion Ivy Miller (Edith Barrett) are, and they promise to entertain Johnny until Rosemary comes back. However, after staying at the house a few days, Johnny and the visiting Dr. Leslie, who is Hilda’s new doctor, become suspicious. Why does Hilda dodge questions about Rosemary's return? How come Ivy is so fidgety? And could someone please tell us where Rosemary is?!
Will we ever get to see the real Rosemary? Johnny (William Terry) wonders.
Let's be real, things are ominous right off the bat. 1. Johnny gets Rosemary's address OUT OF A BOOK found at the Red Cross, and she's seen a picture of him but she's never sent one back, and yet he's on route to visit her. 2. Something happens while Leslie and Johnny talk on the train right when he is about to reveal important information to her. 3. Rosemary's house just so happens to be perched on a cliff where visitors must park their cars on the very edge, where an ominous sign indicates there's a sheer drop to the water, as if one couldn't tell. 4. In general, every single thing about Hilda is odd. It's not her crutch (though that does add something to it), but rather her obsessive fixation on her daughter's portrait that alerts the audience that everything isn't hunky dory. .
See #3 above.
After a while, Rosemary still hasn't showed up, and obviously, something is very wrong. All signs of suspicion curiously point towards Hilda: she skirts around Johnny's questions about her daughter and suddenly cuts Ivy off during just about every conversation they have. Hilda's actions are affecting Ivy too: Hilda's companion desperately tries to score some alone time with Dr. Leslie (which is close to impossible given that Hilda IS ALWAYS AROUND) to confide in her; yet ,when Ivy finally does, she just asks for sleeping pills. Huh.
I won't go into the details of the 3rd act, because in addition to being absolutely crazy, any specifics would hint too much at the ending. Let's just say that Johnny and Dr. Leslie take matters into their own hands and break some news to Hilda, which doesn't make Hilda a happy, or sane, camper. But really, was she ever?
Any guesses as to who's the crazy one here? Anyone? Dr. Leslie, left (Virgina Grey) and Ivy, right (Edith Barrett) flank Ms. Off-Her-Rocker Hilda (Helene Thimig).
Let’s get back to the above master of crazy ceremonies, Hilda. Everything about her - including her eerie smile, her clearly fake 'nothing is wrong at all' act, and her slow articulation, complete with that Austrian accent - is simply unsettling. I'd never seen Helene Thimig in a movie before (she and her husband, director Max Reinhardt, fled the Nazis in the early 1940s, which could account for something), but she does a fantastic job of casting a sinister, mesmerizing feel over the entire picture. I could probably watch her talk to that portrait for 56 minutes straight and still be awestruck…and terrified. Her minion, Edith Barret’s incredibly timid Ivy, who is used to her place in Hilda’s fantasy world until others enter, contrasts nicely with Thimig's portrayal of Hilda as a darkly charming, possessive fanatic.
Team normal, consisting of William Terry as Johnny Meadows and Virginia Grey as Dr. Leslie, aren't as noteworthy, unfortunately. Neither role is as juicy as Thimig's or even Barret's, but both could have done better with the material (yes, even considering how insane some of the moments are). Terry's acting, in particular, was rather stiff and unemotional; to me, his face looked pretty much the same throughout every scene - just blank. He may have raised his voice once or twice, but other than that, he was as flat as a cardboard cutout, even amidst all the suspicious behaviors that surround him! Grey wasn't much better either; in fact, she seemed rather bored. Though she acted in some noteworthy productions a few years before this film came out, including The Women and Another Thin Man, both from 1939, by 1942 she was a freelancer, which probably explains her role in this movie. Still gotta commit, Grey!
Hilda, the Wicked Witch of the West. Also, an expression on Johnny's face!
What the movie lacks in some of the performances it makes up - well, kind of - in the production and story. Though obviously a B picture, everything on screen looks pretty decent: old scary mansion, check. Beautiful portrait of Rosemary, check. Terrifying cliff side, check. Cinematographer Reggie Lanning skillfully captured the sinister atmosphere both inside - thanks to Hilda and the mansion - and outside - courtesy the formidable sheer drop that's enough to ditch the car at the bottom and walk up. Perfectly timed - at time perhaps a bit too on cue - little twists and turns add to the suspense, and Bryant Ford and Paul Gangelin's script, particularly in the 3rd act, gives Hilda some hilariously (unintentional?) evil things to do. However, by the end it feels as if the writers were getting as desperate as Hilda seems to be, which makes for some moments that could have been tenser than they turn out to be. The ending, which is incredibly ironic, suits the movie in an absurd way, AND it also garnered the largest laughs of the evening. Success?
Despite uneven performances, Strangers in the Night is a fast-paced, sinister, and unintentionally hilarious psychological thriller. I'm quite happy I chose to sit in a dark theater, cringing and laughing along with countless others at Hilda's absurdities, instead of getting my suggested 30 minutes of daily physical activity.
How to uncover Rosemary's fate for yourself: Strangers in the Night is not only out on DVD but Blu-Ray too! Though the experience of watching Helene Thimig chill on the big screen is hard to replicate, she's still sure to frighten on a smaller scale...or any scale, really.