Not as a Stranger (MGM LE Collection) Review

Stanley Kramer put together the best casts. As a director Kramer's decisions were perhaps suspect, favoring a heavy, often moralizing hand that has caused many of his films to age poorly, but he had a knack for picking actors. Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, which I'd rank as Kramer's best picture, are paired brilliantly. Ship of Fools also has a highly interesting ensemble, with everyone from Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin to Oskar Werner and Simone Signoret. Quite possibly the most intriguing bunch Kramer ever assembled, and really one of the neatest cast lists you'll ever find, was for his directorial debut Not as a Stranger. Consider: Robert Mitchum, Olivia de Havilland, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Broderick Crawford, Charles Bickford, Lon Chaney, Harry Morgan, Mae Clarke, Whit Bissell. There's a shot early on of Mitchum, Sinatra and Marvin together that screams missed opportunity, both regarding this film and the potential for teaming these icons of cool in the future.

Marvin disappears quickly (and too soon), giving way to star Mitchum as a promising but serious-minded and arrogant medical student and his less dedicated buddy played by Sinatra. Top-billed de Havilland is dyed blonde, giving away too much forehead, and adopts a Swedish accent to play a nurse with a crush on Mitchum's character. He's in desperate need of money for tuition so he marries her, knowing she's tucked away quite a bit of cash in her bank account. The motivation of the Mitchum character is a tricky avenue to navigate but the film plays it far better than the actions sound on paper. He doesn't love de Havilland but he's nonetheless committed to her, at least in theory, and he views the arrangement as essentially being a trade-off that allows for both a continued path to his chosen profession and her happiness. Not surprisingly, snags occur.

Mitchum is so devoted to being a doctor that, after marrying de Havilland and relocating to a small farming community, he seems to have little concern for anything other than his work. Charles Bickford appears as the older doctor who brings Mitchum in and takes him under his wing. Troubles remain at home, with de Havilland anxious to start a family and Mitchum stalling her as best he can, but the real monkey wrench is the widowed and wealthy Gloria Grahame. She's slightly aggressive, though perhaps better described as cunning. She's also, in typical Grahame fashion, a seductress. Mitchum ultimately cannot resist, with Kramer and his editor ridiculously cutting between a pair of horses neighing and the eventual lovers.

It's more than a little uncomfortable seeing Gloria Grahame in this film. Her character is underdeveloped but the performance is fine. Indeed, seeing her on horseback creates dangerous thoughts. What's awkward is how she looks, specifically her mouth. Grahame's unhappiness with her upper lip and the various procedures that she underwent as a result are fairly well known. In Not as a Stranger, she barely moves her mouth when speaking. It's distracting and a real shame that such a beautiful woman felt like she had to alter herself in that manner. Mitchum, with whom she was appearing on screen for the third time, supposedly ended up with flecks of wet tissue in his mouth after shooting their kissing scene. In real life, their siblings - Grahame's sister and Mitchum's brother - were married to each other.

Some of the instances of miscasting and poorly used actors have to fall on Kramer. He had been a successful producer prior to taking the reins here, with credits including Champion, The Sniper, and The Caine Mutiny. The 1955 adaptation of Morton Thompson's bestseller was the first in a remarkable string of nine movies that concluded with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967. Kramer's work afterward didn't seem to push the same buttons, and all of his remaining features, which amounted to just over half of his directing career, have largely faded from the collective consciousness. He shows an early flair for dramatics and emotionally heightened situations in Not as a Stranger but there's little hiding the inconsequential, overwrought nature of the whole thing. When Mitchum challenges the competence of another doctor, something that happens on two separate occasions, it's less a criticism of the profession and its practitioners than a reveal of the character's attitude.

The film is a melodrama of the sort that clogged up Hollywood in the fifties, though it's still surprising that a proper DVD was never put out in R1. Its cast, and the potentially compelling steadfastness of the protagonist, help to make Not as a Stranger a better picture than its tepid reputation might suggest. Mitchum does justice to his character even if the script, especially the ending, fails him at times. The remaining ingredients emphasize an audience-friendly, popcorn tone to the movie that works best if, as here, there are actors involved who are so highly watchable. Some attempts at innovative editing mostly just look choppy, with the one patient after another cattle call effect shown when Mitchum begins interning at the hospital and then repeated again, as a means of juxtaposing the different kinds of patients, when he starts practicing in town. Strange decisions in the script and by Kramer may be bothersome, even devaluing what could have been a better overall film, but there's still enough here to warrant a recommendation.


The Disc

Not as a Stranger was apparently not deemed to be worthy of a pressed disc from MGM in R1 so it instead is released as part of the Limited Edition Collection, a near-euphemism for a line of made-on-demand DVD-Rs. Both Spain and Germany have standard DVD releases available. I picked up the edition in the latter country for what seemed like a real bargain last year but it proved to be a mess, brimming with noise and artifacts.

This single-layered DVD-R shows no damage and looks rather good. Sharpness and visible detail are strong points. Some shots look a tad softer than others but it's generally consistent. Contrast is maybe not ideal in terms of greyscale and black levels. The transfer otherwise looks to have been worthy of a proper retail release on DVD instead of this fate. Stability is not a concern. Some noise remains among the swirling and intact grain but it's forgivable. The film is in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio despite the back of the case indicating "wide screen."

English mono audio presents no issues though remains modest, as one might expect. Dialogue sounds pleasantly clear while volume maintains a nice consistency during playback. There are no subtitles offered.

Nothing in the way of special features, either.


7 out of 10
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