Phone Call from a Stranger
I saw a very unusual movie last weekend and recommend it: Phone Call from a Stranger (1952). It’s about four people—Gary Merrill, a lawyer, Shelley Winters, a show girl, Keenan Wynn, a salesman, and Michael Rennie, a doctor—who meet and become friendly during a plane trip from Iowa to California and whose lives interact in surprising ways. It also features Bette Davis. Before seeing this movie, I didn’t like the lead actor, Gary Merrill (mainly from his wimpish performance as Bette Davis’s fiancé in All About Eve) and I didn’t like him in the opening part of this film, but his performance grows on you. The opening scenes are talky, but give it a chance. It’s a very human and meaningful story, with no politics at all. The screenplay, written by Nunnally Johnson, is unlike anything I’ve seen before; Johnson is an original.
I would also say: don’t read anything about the movie before you see it. The plot is filled with surprises and unexpected developments right up to the very end.
Often when watching American films from the 1940s or ’50s, rather than the story line I focus on what was things that were not consciously intended to be part of the film. Hitchcock movies are especially good for this. So are the Bogart movies. Try Dark Passage (1947) with Bogart and Bacall, about an escaped convict who befriends a woman who agrees to help him find who really killed his wife. If you can do it without crying, watch the background scenery of San Francisco in mid 20th century. Notice how magnificent the city seems, how clean, how broad and sunlit the horizon. This is film noir but even the induced murk fails to cut off the sense of unbounded promise that exists just beyond the camera’s focus. Watch the pace of the city that appears in the background, the people walking down the street, the way they interact, the way they dress. Look at how an unspoken code of manners is guiding every person in the background. See how the man in the suit opens the door for the lady in the dress. Notice the assured masculinity of the men, the charming femininity of the women as they get off the train. That’s not intended to be in the film. They didn’t have any opinions about all this in 1947; it just was. Look at the man casually talking to his friend on a street corner, there is an ease and congeniality that is terrifying to watch. Or the couple sharing a cup of coffee in a café, they have all the time in the world.James N. writes:
I am spending the night in a resort hotel in Westchester County, en route to an important engagement tomorrow in NYC.December 8
Dark Passage showed a beautiful city, well-mannered people, and other marks of what America was. Another thing I noted in that movie was the music. It was wonderful.December 8
Deborah A. writes:
Adding to Ed H.’s remarks: For me, the most enjoyable aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is the movie’s backdrop of 1950s San Francisco. Almost every scene provides rich visual interest: an elegant I. Magnin’s department store, a shipbuilder’s panelled office, churches, restaurants, and hotels. It depicts a very appealing everyday life in that city, rather than a tourist destination. Seeing Vertigo the other day recalled your comments some months ago on Naked City and how that movie depicted Manhattan in the late 1940s.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 07, 2012 01:07 PM | Send