Rachel and the Stranger Review

When farmer William Holden's wife dies, he's left all alone in the woods with a young son, an otherwise empty cabin, and more work than he can handle by himself. His boy needs another caretaker and he needs a woman who can cook and clean. It wouldn't be proper for a man and a woman to live together unmarried so Holden pays $18 down, with $4 more owed, for a bonded servant and promptly marries her. She's 25 years old, likes to talk to herself on occasion and is played by Loretta Young (who was actually about 35 years old).

Holden is very cool to her, and both father and son like to point out ways that Young is different from the dead woman. Only the arrival of Robert Mitchum, a wanderer and friend of the family, makes Holden see his new wife as something more than a servant. Tension then builds up between Holden and Mitchum as the former seems jealous of the latter spending time with Young. This comes to a head with fisticuffs followed by some general acrimony among all three parties. Director Norman Foster brings everyone back together to fight off the evil, invading Shawnees in a climactic nudge of action and violence.

Not a lot goes on beyond the basic premise of in Rachel and the Stranger, a 1948 RKO picture written for the screen by Waldo Salt. If nothing else it tends to be a reminder of Holden's lack of screen presence prior to Sunset Blvd. As with a lot of the movies leading up to Billy Wilder reviving the actor's career, Rachel shows hardly anything of note from Holden. His character and the way he plays the role here are actually more contemptible than sympathetic, and it's easy to want Young to leave him and run off with Mitchum. Indeed, having the effortlessly charismatic Mitchum as the alternative seems almost like a cheat. He blows his co-stars off the screen every time he appears. There's nothing appreciably beneath the surface in either Holden or Young, helping to make Mitchum perpetually look like the cat who ate the canary.

When Mitchum's not in the film it tends to meander quite a bit. Exchanges between Holden and Young are clearly meant to set up his apathy for her, and her increasing frustration, but they come across as perfunctory concessions. The farm setting feels limiting and bad stock footage like that of a bear scratching its back on a tree further underline the apparent low budget of the production. There must be something other than Mitchum about Rachel and the Stranger to speak highly of, but I can't think what it might be. Even the day for night shots look ugly and poorly done. Still, the film has its fans and those who fall into that category will be happier than I was to watch it on DVD.

The Disc

The RKO library is mostly held by Warner Bros. in R1, which means that titles never making it to DVD proper are or will probably be thrown into the Warner Archive DVD-R heap if bothered with at all. With RKO's catalog controlled elsewhere in the UK, Odeon Entertainment was able to license out a good number of films for DVD. Rachel and the Stranger is among the first titles being issued by Odeon, and stands out as one that hasn't yet made it out of the WB vault at all in the U.S. It's a region-free, single-layered disc.

With a low retail price point of ten pounds and classic fans anxious to get their hands on these RKO titles in pressed discs, Odeon potentially has quite a good thing going here. But they screwed up. The transfers are PAL format without properly converting from NTSC. This keeps the running time at the original pace instead of allowing for the 4% speedup. It also introduces combing and ghosting and various other possible problems. If your player doesn't flinch at such a thing then you might be in the clear but my primary one does and it makes for a very sluggish viewing experience. On top of that, the Rachel elements used don't appear to be in the best of condition and greyscale is less than ideal. The disappointing contrast doesn't help an image that's rather soft. There isn't much damage in the print at least, and the aspect ratio is respected at roughly 1.33:1 (though, for some reason, it's windowboxed).

The English Dolby Digital mono track isn't bad. There is no overriding hiss or crackle to deal with while listening to the movie. Dialogue can be understood without any strain and comes through at a consistent level of volume. The musical score is likewise allowed to emerge reasonably unfettered. My main complaint would be with the lack of subtitles, an omission shared by the Warner Archive discs.

Extras are limited to a stills gallery with a handful of photos to browse through on the disc. Additionally, Odeon's Autumn/Winter 2010 catalog came inside the case of my copy.

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