In a less prescriptive style than has become the case for her in recent years, it lays out the ambiguities of this fascinating film with a mixture of coarsely-phrased judgmentalism (the umpteenth putdown of Jennifer Jones*), tenuous grasp of history (McCarthy era is a misnomer--the Blacklist was earlier and separate from the sedition practiced by the rabid-dog senator from Wisconsin), and the occasionally unique insight that is found nowhere else (I leave you to locate it in the text below).
As is often the case with the slick aesthetes of the East Coast school, Imogen is much too satisfied to wind up her essay with an unanswered question--allowing a great deal of "viewer response" style "criticism" to be mashed up with a series of facts sifted through to slant the essay into the strange blend of cynical detachment and fanboy fetishism that skirts around a truly considered assessment of the film at hand. That WE WERE STRANGERS was actually "sneaked back IN" to Hollywood as damage control for the careers of several of its principals is a fact entirely missed in the write-up below...what's also missing here is a sense of the range and extent of "social outcry" films in Hollywood during the Blacklist years (1947-51) and how that played out.
We do agree with Imogen that Jones' speech at the end of the film is hokey--this moment would have better been left to silence. As for the film coming to grips with its "endorsement of mass murder," Smith is guilty of overstatement. The film acknowledges the reality of such actions, but does not endorse them. The stance of the revolutionary on this issue is at best depicted as a regrettable, necessary evil that should only be taken when there is no other possible remedy. How to end such a film must have prompted an interesting set of exchanges between Huston and his main collaborator Peter Viertel.
In the midst of the careening from one critical tendency to the next, however, Imogen does admirably capture several of the key scenes and some of the feeling that you'll experience in this unique film, one that we're proud to be the first to put on the big screen since its inclusion in Lincoln Center's 2014 Huston retrospective when it plays at the Roxie as the closing film in THE DARK SIDE OF THE DREAM on March 26.
We Were Strangers (1949)
"What is wrong and what is right / Will be decided by dynamite"
As the bombastic credit music fades, a prologue rolls across the screen, laying out the historical situation in black and white: evil government, heroic rebels. The opening scene presents the Cuban Senate passing a bill to outlaw all public assemblies. Just as your heart is sinking at the prospect of a heavy-handed and simple-minded pageant, the style of the scene changes. The senators are told to stand if they are in favor of the bill, and a few rise immediately. Then, one by one, in a series of close-ups, the senators glance around nervously, feeling the pressure to conform, look craven or embarrassed or merely indifferent, and stand. I've never seen a more subtly scathing attack on politicians, and it works because it's visual, not verbal. Instead of lecturing us, it lets us see for ourselves.
WE WERE STRANGERS is exceptionally well-directed by John Huston, shot not just with flair but with moments of disorienting originality, and inkier shadows than many a film noir (the actors' faces often half-obliterated by darkness.) The script is even more surprising, and it's hard to believe this film was made in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, or indeed any era, since it condones not only assassination but the murder of innocent bystanders for political ends. It stars John Garfield and Jennifer Jones and features lame Hispanic accents and some atrocious back-projection scenes in which the actors appear to be walking in place in front of a movie screen. It could have been a disaster, but instead it's gripping and fascinating; not a complete success, but both unexpected and unforgettable.
Set in Havana, the story centers on China Valdez (Jones), a proper young woman whose brother, a member of the revolutionary underground, is shot down in front of her eyes after passing out leaflets. Bitter and burning for revenge, China (pronounced “Chee-na”) joins the underground and volunteers for a project headed by an American, Tony Fenner (Garfield) to wipe out the entire government by assassinating a high-ranking politician and then bombing his funeral. The small band of rebels moves into China's house, digging a tunnel from the basement to the family mausoleum of the intended victim. The group includes a relaxed, rumba-singing dockworker (Gilbert Roland) and a wealthy university student (Ramon Novarro) who goes crazy with guilt because the man they plan to murder is a family friend. Meanwhile China is shadowed by Ariete (Pedro Armendariz), the secret policeman who killed her brother: an oily, menacing villain whose suspicions of China are heightened by his lust for her and obsessive jealousy of Fenner.
"Ridiculously glamorous?" The woman can't help being beautiful, Imogen! But we see none of the items you describe below in THIS scene...
Granted, Jennifer Jones looks ridiculously glamorous; even after she has joined in digging through the rotting corpses of the graveyard she appears in every scene with flawless eye makeup, crisp sexy blouse and upswept hairdo. Granted, her accent is on a par with Natalie Wood's in WEST SIDE STORY (all of the "Cubans" speak accented English; Garfield, thank heavens, speaks in his usual Bronx-bred tones). But Jones is good, wearing a hardened, mask-like face that barely conceals her terror whenever Ariete pops up. They have a terrific if obvious scene together, in which China sits rigid with mounting disgust and panic as Ariete messily devours a crab, pounding and crunching and slurping, gulping rum and getting drunker and sweatier as he tells her that he's really a man of sentiment and honor.
Garfield's performance is not at all what you'd expect; he's so restrained, in his early scenes he seems almost drugged. We never learn much about his character, a ruthless, efficient mastermind. Once he trades his light tropical suit for a grimy t-shirt, he becomes a more familiar Garfield: skin glistening with mud and sweat as he digs, he exudes grit and sex appeal and lets his façade crack to show vulnerability. With little build-up, he and Jones fall into a predictable clinch, in a scene unforgettably shot in pitch blackness with spare flashes of lightning. The triumph of his performance is that he never tries to make Fenner likable, charming or heroic; the irresistible Garfield grin is nowhere in sight. He's callous, laconic and impassive, yet somehow his charisma is overpowering. Because he was so intense and unafraid of emotion, I've never thought of John Garfield as an under-actor, but in his later performances it's remarkable how little he actually does. He gets tremendous effects out of stillness, often just watching and listening to his busier co-stars. You feel what he feels, almost physically; he has no need for pantomime.
WE WERE STRANGERS is a blend of stark honesty and Hollywood clichés, brilliant direction and cheesy effects. Unfortunately, at the end, Hollywood wins. Garfield gets to go out in style, holed up with his true love, blasting away with a machine gun, lighting sticks of dynamite from his cigarette and lobbing them like hand grenades at the police. Jennifer Jones makes a hokey speech over his corpse and then the revolution breaks out and in five minutes the government topples! The film never really comes to terms with its endorsement of mass murder (Gilbert Roland insouciantly sings, "What is wrong and what is right / Will be decided by dynamite"), and it's hard to say whether it shows honorable ambivalence or shameful woolly-mindedness. But I came away from this strange, flawed, feverish movie electrified. How did it ever sneak out of 1940s Hollywood?
*Actually Imogen just can't make up her mind about Jones, who is, in fact, VERY good in this film and credibly carries a great deal of the action, regardless of how "glamorous" she is. Smith just can't quite allow herself to praise Jones' acting skills, having to qualify the electrifyingly tense scene between her and Armendariz (a superbly villanous performance) as "terrific if obvious." It's a terrific scene, period.
Jones' work here and her experience in making a film that went against so much of her image prompted her to work with Huston again on BEAT THE DEVIL. That experience, as we know, was a good bit less sanguine...