Judge Brett Cullum loves girls with guns in John Huston movies, especially when they look like Jennifer Jones.
An explosive story of violent lives…lived dangerously!
Originally this John Huston movie was going to be a vehicle for then- "rising starlet" Marilyn Monroe (The Seven-Year Itch). The producer of the movie balked at the cost of a screen test for the blonde bombshell, and Huston ended up with raven-haired Jennifer Jones (Portrait of Jenny) instead for the lead role of China Valdes. Jones was originally from Oklahoma, and had to be transformed to take on the role of a Cuban revolutionary. Fortunately for Huston, the Oscar-winning actress (for The Song of Bernadette) was up to the challenge, and We Were Strangers was a success at the box office in 1949.
It's an odd epic that champions revolutionaries in Cuba around 1933. Huston was certainly taking his chances, as the political climate of 1949 was hardly sympathetic to this cause or insurrection. The infamous blacklist was already being compiled, and the subject matter of We Were Strangers could have made him suspect. Today the film even seems more revolutionary, because basically the heroes are planning a terrorist attack. These are people ready to react with violence in response to the abuses of their government. Innocent people die in the film, but the cause is always romanticized and rationalized by the characters. It's a bold statement, and the film even kicks off with a quote from Thomas Jefferson at the start. Who knew John Huston had made a pro-terrorist movie? It certainly shocked me when I watched We Were Strangers, and thought about its ramifications today.
As the movie opens, it's been seven years since Cuba's independence, and the country is under the fierce rule of President Gerardo Machado. Pretty bank clerk China Valdes (Jones) joins an underground band of rebels (we call them cells now) after her brother is savagely killed on the steps of a university by Ariete (Pedro Armendariz, From Russia With Love), the chief of the Secret Police. Her group introduces her to an ex-patriot named Tony Fenner (John Garfield, Gentleman's Agreement) who has just returned to Havana in the guise of an entertainment booking agent. She falls for him. Fenner has an audacious plan to topple the tyrannical government. He wants to dig a tunnel underneath a cemetery and end up on the property of a high-ranking Cuban official. They will assassinate him, and try to blow up all the highest ranking officials at the subsequent State funeral with a bomb planted in the tunnels. They band together a group of revolutionaries and start digging. The problems start coming when the group begins to crack under the pressures of staging this political act of violence.
For Huston, this was the film he made between Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle (a film that did feature a young Marilyn Monroe, finally). We Were Strangers is not quite The Maltese Falcon or The African Queen, but it is a taut little action thriller given even more resonance by its on-location shots of Cuba before Castro. It's already an interesting movie, but the location filming really makes it a fascinating watch, just to see pre-Castro Cuba. Entertainment Weekly named Huston the "13th Greatest Director of All Time," and he's certainly well within his game here.
But We Were Strangers, for all its ambitions and political unrest, remains more of a crowd pleaser than anything that broadened Huston's artistic palette. Still, We Were Strangers is often referred to as one of Huston's most controversial films, and many recommend it as one of his forgotten classics. Technically he seems to rely too heavily on rear projection; often the film feels a little false because of it. The love story between Jennifer Jones and Jon Garfield seems tacked on to make the film more appealing to women. For such a passionate subject, Huston at times seems to be on autopilot, making a standard action movie. There are definitely classic moments, most notably the well directed final stand-off. He relies on the performers to punch things up, especially in the first half of the film. Thankfully, the leads are all quite strong. In the supporting cast, Gilbert Roland (Around the World in 80 Days) plays a young revolutionary so well he almost steals the film thanks to his passionate acting.
The film will probably appeal more to fans of the film's lead actress, Jennifer Jones. She's oddly cast, and even more surprisingly luminous as the Latina revolutionary bombshell. She looks great holding a rifle, comes to secret meetings in cute hats and smart suits, and even seems to glow dressed in all black weeping through a veil at a funeral. At one time she was considered the forerunner for the lead in Laura, and one can certainly see why. She simmers with murderous rage when she sees Ariete at her job, and she blatantly vows to kill him. Her performance is almost all eyes; the shifts in her character occurring there more than in her body. John Garfield is the typical handsome tough-guy ringleader, but it is Jones, thrown in the middle of the mix, that gives the movie an interesting angle. Unfortunately the movie was made in 1949, so Jones has to play her rage through pretty clothes and well-coiffured hair. But it reads, and she does a fine job. It really disturbed me in the final scenes when I saw how naturally she seemed to wield a firearm.
Another revelation in the film is Pedro Armendariz as Ariete. Pedro was a Mexican immigrant who made it to Hollywood after he was spotted reciting a monologue from Hamlet while guiding American tourists through Mexico City. He was featured in many classics of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, but his appeal translated quite well in many American movies as well. He is shockingly good looking, and hard as steel as the villain of We Were Strangers. And the fact he doesn't have to fake his Spanish accent gives him a lot of mileage in the film as well. Armendariz took his own life in 1963 after he finished work on From Russia With Love. He shot himself because he had contracted cancer from exposure to radiation while working on the 1956 film The Conqueror. It was an incident that took the lives of ninety-one people in the industry, including John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, and Susan Hayward.
A lot of people are going to be excited that at last we get a chance to see We Were Strangers. It is a long-lost gem of a movie with an epic feel, a solid director, and a fine cast gamely up to the story. The film was never transferred to a VHS format, so Columbia's DVD release is a rare chance to own the film commercially for the first time. The full screen black and white transfer is pretty clear, but there is print damage, dirt, and grain present. I noticed that it was very problematic right at every reel change, but the black levels seems good. It doesn't look like the DVD producers manipulated the picture too much, and there is a constant wash of grain. The sound mix is a clear mono track that has been remastered with fine results. The cover art of the box is a nice, if incongruous, overly romantic image of Jones and Garfield locked in a strong embrace against a background of explosions. No extras are offered at all. That's a real pity, given that most people haven't seen the film, except maybe on late night broadcasts. I would have enjoyed some insight into why the film was considered so scandalous and why it disappeared for so long. Whatever the reason, I'm glad it's back, and priced well to boot.
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