Julien reviews 1967’s Stranger in the House, a new addition to the BFI Flipside collection
It’s interesting to see how the title of the original book that inspired this this film has evolved throughout its adaptations. The Strangers in the House (Les Inconnus dans la maison in French) is one of the most famous novels from Belgian writer George Simenon, the creator of Inspector Maigret. Although the first adaptation directed by Henri Decoin (Abused Confidence) and written by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Corbeau) in 1942, two years after the release of the novel and famously made under the French Occupation leading to interesting interpretations about the title, kept the original title of the book, the three later ones (1967, 1992 and 1997) decided to go for the thematically simplified Stranger in the House, unconsciously putting the emphasis on the murder mystery rather than the isolation of characters which can indeed be seen as strangers for each other.
Once an eminent barrister, John Sawyer (James Mason, Lolita) has become a cynical, reclusive drunk, long deserted by his wife, baffled by the burgeoning youth culture and held in contempt by his daughter, Angela (Geraldine Chaplin, Doctor Zhivago). But when her boyfriend is wrongfully accused of murder, Sawyer must confront his demons and a changing world in order to defend him.
Despite the grammatical change in the title, the 1967 version of The Strangers in the House, still tries to put a certain amount of emphasis on the, or rather lack of, relationship between Sawyer and his daughter. This is purposely addressed in the best scenes of the film which take place in contrasted areas of the family house (the sets beautifully emphasising this aspect of the story), or with some visually interesting scenes involving Sawyer’s wife, and which benefit from the wonderful acting talents and presence of James Mason. Unfortunately this aspect of the story is not deepened enough and it never takes precedence over the crime aspect of the film; for instance, the uncertainty over Sawyer’s paternity is never really fully exploited.
Paradoxically, and even if it must have make a lot of sense at the time, the film significantly relies on the imagery of the Sixties to reinforce the gap in generation between Sawyer and his daughter, to the point of threatening to make the film a bad exploitation film as witnessed by the frankly cheap opening scene featuring evocative outfits, drugs, and a barely tolerable song by the then very popular Eric Burdon & The Animals, or the cheap Beatles-like peregrinations/games of Angela and her friends during the boat scene. This will most certainly be, by far, the weakest aspect of the film for current viewers and it didn’t seem to have worked very well at the time either judging by the reception of the film.
However it would be a shame to stop at these aspects of the film as Stranger in the House remains an intelligent drama retaining many aspects of the original novel when depicting Sawyer’s return “amongst the living”, and it tries to keep the focus of the story outside of the court were the trial is being played. It also quite sensitively touches on some controversial issues of the time in Britain such as homosexuality or impotence.
The screenplay was adapted by the director himself, Pierre Rouve, from Simenon’s book. Rouve, in his sole directorial effort, after producing Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece Blow-up in 1966, does an honourable job, making good use of both the sceneries of Winchester and Southampton, and the beautiful sets designed by Tony Woollard (Georgy Girl).
Stranger in the House also features some very interesting performances, mainly by an imperial, as usual, James Mason in the cliché-prone role of a drunken ex-star lawyer, and an over-the-top but weirdly creepy Bobby Darin (Come September).
Stranger in the House was released in the UK on February 25th. It is part of the BFI Flipside collection.
The film is presented in a 1080p transfer respecting its 1.66:1 original aspect ratio.
Overall, the quality of the image is good allowing to display rich colours, sharp details and an adequate amount of grain. However, this disc is not exempt of default; the image has not benefited from a strong restoration or even clean-up and it shows in the earlier scenes of the film in the club (traces can be seen on the black walls) or when characters are wearing black or white clothes (for instance there is a yellowish halo around Bobby Darin’s when he’s wearing his reefer jacket 54 minutes into the film).
On the sound side, the blu-ray disc features a good PCM 2.0 mono audio track with no discernible defects.
The disc also proposes optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
This new addition in the BFI Flipside collection contains a nice array of extras:
G.G. Passion (David Bailey, 1966, 25 mins): a pop singer is hounded to death in this fab film featuring Chrissie Shrimpton and Caroline Munro – This is a short film in black & white written by Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski’s faithful co-screenwriter, and released the same year as their first masterpiece, Repulsion. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but it’s quite intriguing and it nicely captures the spirit of the time, justifying its addition to this disc.
Good Strong Coffee (c1968, 2 mins): swingers swig coffee in this psychedelic ad for the black stuff – This is a rather anecdotal extra showing people drinking coffee in a rather archetypal imagery of the Sixties.
Tram Journey Through Southampton (c1900, 1 min) / Charlie Chaplin Sails From Southampton (1921, 1 min) – Very interesting footage of the early 20th century unfortunately illustrated with an annoyingly out of place music.
Southampton Docks (1964, 24 mins): marvellous mod machinery at work on a merchant vessel – This is a very factual British Transport film describing the activities at the Southampton Docks.
James Mason in Conversation (1981, 86 mins, audio only): the actor discusses his career in an interview at the National Film Theatre, London – In this interview, actually presented like an audio commentary, i.e. running over the film, the actor interestingly starts by discussing the state of cinema at the time (for him basically blockbusters and Soap Opera films such as Kramer vs. Kramer) and what he looks forward to. He then discusses many aspects of his impressive career from I Met a Murderer to TV movies Salem’s Lot and Ivanhoe (he also mentions a role he turned down in one of Sidney Lumet’s films). It’s a pleasure to hear Mason discuss aspects of his career and answer questions from the audience, making this a very worthwhile extra.
Newly recorded audio commentary by Flipside founders Vic Pratt and William Fowler – This is the only new extra especially produced for this release of Stranger in the House and it is a frankly interesting one. During the commentary, two of the three BFI Flipside cofounders discuss many elements related to the film such as: the differences between the film and the original Simenon novel, the swinging 60s and the rebellious attitude of the younger characters, the pop art aspects (outfits, hair styles and sets), the Winchester and Southampton locations. They also give numerous anecdotes about the cast and the crew of the film (for instance James Mason’s attitude on the set), the high expectations behind the film and its ultimate underwhelming reception by the critics and the general audience. Finally they also present various interesting hypothesis and analysis about the themes addressed in the film and their potential relationship with the actions or attributes of the characters.
The BFI’s release also contains the original trailer for the film, in poor quality, and a very insightful illustrated booklet with new writing by Jonathan Rigby, Omer Ali and Antion Vikram Meredith (formerly Vic Briggs of The Animals).
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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