Republic Pictures, 56m 7s
The lively gothic noir programmer STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT marked the film noir debut of pioneering auteur Anthony Mann, a figurehead of some of the genre's enduring classics, including T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948) and BORDER INCIDENT (1949). Those who appreciate Mann's more recognized efforts should find a lot to like in this Republic Pictures product, which registers keen awareness of director Alfred Hitchcock's galvanizing contribution to the infrastructure of the thriller (especially his REBECCA  and SUSPICION ). In fact the screenplay engineered by Bryant Ford and Paul Gangelin was based on an original story by Philip MacDonald, one of the writers credited for the Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 novel REBECCA.
During his tour of duty in the South Pacific, Sergeant Johnny Meadows (William Terry) sustains a severe injury to his back. His recuperative power is aided by a secondhand copy of A. E. Housman's A SHROPSHIRE LAD with a hand-written inscription from Rosemary Blake, with whom he establishes a correspondence. She becomes his primary inspiration to return to the states. While Johnny makes his way to a small California coastal town to meet the pen pal love he never has seen, her mother Hilda Blake (Helene Thimig) admires the large painting of Rosemary that rules the family mansion. After Hilda and her browbeaten companion Ivy Miller (Edith Barrett) drink a birthday toast to Rosemary, Dr. Leslie Ross (Virginia Grey) pays a visit to announce her arrival as the new town physician. Hilda is dismissive of Dr. Ross, an attractive, self-reliant woman of integrity. Without basis, Hilda instinctively fears Dr. Ross is jealous of Rosemary's flawless beauty.
Despite a modest runtime that does not quite stretch to an hour, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT manages to cover many genre facets. Crucial noir tropes emerge during a train ride, when the marine vet Johnny spots a copy of A SHROPSHIRE LAD held by a woman in the dining car, who just so happens to be Dr. Ross. In a decision guided by the enigmatic noir force of fate, Dr. Ross takes a seat at the table occupied by Johnny. He senses he has met his true love based upon the book she possesses. His romantic sensibilities are sound, though he is completely mistaken about the woman's identity. Quite overtly, Dr. Ross functions as Rosemary's noir doppelgänger. When both Johnny and Dr. Ross realize they are bound for the same destination, a narrative-jolting derailment hints of the intense dramatics that await at the Blake manor, where an atmosphere of disturbing solemnity is perched on the edge of a precipitous seaside cliff obviously destined to factor in the film's denouement.
Through its monstrous feminine Hilda, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT delves into the depths of a lonely woman's frail psyche. When walking she requires an assistive cane, a device often used to conceptualize an incomplete character in the film noir. A pathetic personality (as opposed to sympathetic), Hilda compensates for her compromised physicality with domineering treatment of others. On the receiving end more than anyone is Ivy, who often finds herself castigated for not living up to Hilda's unreasonable expectations. The grim determinism embodied by the narrative's villainess anticipates the disturbed female minds that cause chaos in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), POSSESSED (1947) and WHIRLPOOL (1949). In her dark obsession with Rosemary's portrait, Hilda might remind the noir enthusiast of Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), the man fascinated by framed perfection in LAURA (1944). There is little doubt LAURA popularized the noir theme of the idealized portrait, though in truth STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT hit theaters a month earlier. Viennese actress Helene Thimig contributes a bravura performance as Hilda, a woman ultimately destroyed by her own creation. Especially in terms of Thimig's role, I have to believe STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT had at least some influence on the Hammer Films production DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (1965), a classic of the hag horror subgenre.
The antithesis of Hilda is of course the genial Dr. Ross, a new breed of woman meant to replace relics like Hilda who have fallen out of touch with changing times. There is a running gag in the film that America is not yet ready to accept the idea of female doctors, the aging matriarch Hilda among those least prepared for such a development. Interestingly Dr. Ross reminds us it was wartime male absence that encouraged women to enter into fields traditionally occupied only by men. That observation reflects a general theme of the noir movement of the 1940s: there is no going back to the America that existed before the war. Radical change was baked into the wartime recipe.
As of this writing, the main plot summary at IMDb.com effectively ruins STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT for the uninitiated. That is not to suggest any great surprise; I learned long ago the more I avoid plot summaries and reviews prior to seeing a film for the first time, the more likely I am to experience the film as the filmmakers intended. It is never my intention to contribute to that nagging problem on my own blog, but for the sake of analysis I offer the following observations strictly for those who already have watched the film. How interesting that, whether he knows it or not, the credulous Johnny falls for a much older woman through his correspondence with the non-existent Rosemary. Not only that, he admits he may not have recovered were it not for her letters! The considerable age difference between Johnny and Hilda certainly is another factor that contributes to her otherness, though the nature of the correspondence outside of age separation remains problematic. To present oneself to another as something other than one's actual self, to create a persona that exists in writing only, is in itself unconscionable conduct. Another indication of the damaged woman is the revelation Hilda was unable to bare children. In light of the truth about Rosemary, the tour Hilda gives Johnny of her daughter's bedroom is especially creepy. That Rosemary essentially comes to life in the concluding sequence to take down Hilda seems completely appropriate, especially as a variation of the FRANKENSTEIN myth. Ivy's tacit agreement with the creation of Rosemary is another troublesome matter. The reticent servant's waning convictions come too late in the game for her redemption.
STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT is available in a single-layered Blu-ray edition from Olive Films. Framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the presentation is marred by some speckles and scratches but overall reflects very good source material. There is no supplemental material to consider.