Monday, October 10, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Stranger at My Door (1956) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

STRANGER AT MY DOOR (1956) was the first new-to-me film seen at this year's Lone Pine Film Festival, and it made quite an impression.

It's an unusual Western with some striking, powerful moments. My only quibble is that I wanted this 85-minute film to be longer, which isn't something I write very often.

STRANGER AT MY DOOR was directed by William Witney, whose son Jay was a guest at the festival. STRANGER AT MY DOOR was a film which was particularly special to the director.

The film is what some might call a "psychological Western." It's the story of a bank robber named Clay (Skip Homeier) who stumbles onto a parson's farm when his horse goes lame after his latest heist. The minister, Hollis Jarret (Macdonald Carey), quickly deduces who Clay is but has hopes he can break through to Clay with Christian kindness.

The minister has an energetic young son named Dodie (Stephen Wootton) from his first marriage, and a gorgeous second wife named Peg (Patricia Medina). The minister and his wife have a loving relationship yet Peg and Clay seem to feel an irresistible pull toward each other, which both thrills and terrifies Peg.

The story reaches its climax when the sheriff (Louis Jean Heydt) stops by and realizes Clay's identity. During the ensuing gunfight, the sheriff accidentally shoots Dodie. Clay, who has become attached to the boy, is shattered and determined to kill the sheriff, unless Hollis can stop him.

That description doesn't do justice to a rather unusual film. The film's centerpiece, in some ways, is a prolonged, nightmarish sequence in which a wild horse tears up much of the Jarrets' farm; I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like it. It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

The wild horse symbolizes Clay, as Hollis intends to tame both man and beast. Peg, however, fears both, and even tries to shoot the horse. She's ultimately unable to, just as she fears she'll be unable to fight her attraction to Clay.

Barry Shipman's story and screenplay left me wanting to know more: What brought Hollis and Peg together? Was it love, or was Peg looking for a safe haven? She seems delighted by her husband's attentions, including the gift of a new hat, and she rather ostentatiously kisses her husband more than once; are her feelings real, or is she trying to prove something to herself and show off to Clay? And does the minister ever regret having endangered his wife and son in his quest to save Clay?

There's a subtle moment late in the film when the minister realizes he came close to losing his wife and an equally subtle moment of reconciliation; what happened next in their relationship? A good movie is often one which causes the viewer to want to dig deeper, but in this case I wished that some of my questions had been answered more overtly in the film!

I suppose some might find the film's ending hokey, but I confess that I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. It was lovely.

The movie was filmed in black and white by Bud Thackery.

After the screening, a brief video was shown of director Witney discussing training the very spirited horse for the prolonged action sequence which is one of the dramatic high points of the film. He said that they worked with the horse extensively every morning in preparation, and that a fake dog was used in some of the shots. (This is easily apparent at one moment in particular.) Witney described stuntman Joe Yrigoyen as the best in the business when it came to working with horses. I happened to find the video online for those who are interested.

STRANGER AT MY DOOR is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films.


Blogger Jerry E said...

I saw this film for the very first time myself just a few months ago, Laura, via an only so-so print. Even so, I was really quite taken with the simplicity yet power of this fine film. It is on my list to get the Olive Films release soonest.
I don't think I have ever seen either Skip Homeier or Macdonald Carey better frankly than in their roles here. The scenes with the horse going berserk are just staggering too.
Great to read your heartfelt review of this little nugget.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for adding your thoughts on this fine movie, Jerry. Completely agree. Excellent performances, plus mixed into the simple setting and story there is some really remarkable movie showmanship, all building to a moving conclusion.

Best wishes,

11:50 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

When I saw this I felt it was the best William Witney movie I've seen--it had a good script to begin with and he did a first-rate job. Even after a long time I still especially remember that startling sequence with the wild horse--it was not only unusual in itself, but unusually riveting. And yes, it did imaginatively render the deeper themes/ideas here.

Coincidentally, I just saw another Witney Western THE OUTCAST (1954), which has a good reputation and has been championed by our friends Jerry and Colin--their enthusiasm prompted me to get a European release, finally watched it just a few weeks ago and greatly enjoyed it, another very strong movie from Witney with adult relationships, conflicts set into a familiar revenge narrative, beautifully directed action and played out to a mature conclusion. In a very iconic cast, James Millican is arguably a standout as the most nuanced and interesting of a number of heavies.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake!

A friend of mine at the screening said something along the lines that the escalating horse sequence played like a horror movie! It was certainly powerful, and amazingly real, which made it all the more effective.

THE OUTCAST looks interesting -- I note Catherine McCleod is in the cast, and so many great character actors. Thanks for the recommendation! Interested to hear more about Witney's films.

Speaking of James Millican, as I mentioned in my intro post on the Lone Pine Festival, it was neat to circle back to RAWHIDE (1951) for the first time in years, now having gained an appreciation of the film's supporting actors such as Millican, Louis Jean Heydt, Kenneth Tobey, and Jeff Corey. Millican and Heydt are seated at the same table in a scene and I had to look hard for a second to settle in my mind who was who; if they're in the same shot it's easy for me, but other times not so much -- they really could be brothers! And I enjoy them equally -- Heydt was wonderful in STRANGER AT MY DOOR. I know Millican and Heydt played brothers in a Dan Duryea Western which I have but haven't seen yet; I wonder if they were both in the casts of other titles. Given how many films they each made (despite Millican's too-early death), it seems likely.

Best wishes,

2:48 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I'm really pleased that you ordered the European release of "THE OUTCAST", Blake, and that you really enjoyed it. To me, it is Republic Studio at its best, a film that is, as you say, mature and nuanced and yet chock full of action. John Derek made a terrific western star in it. But the film has a deep cast with some fine performances.
Possibly, my favourite Witney film.

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, I'm jealous — an so glad you're at Lone Pine. It's a Bucket List place for me.

I really love this movie. Being that it was one of Witney's personal favorites, I was curious to see what it was that appealed to him. It's easy to see — it's just a simple, moving little movie, with plenty of the action we count on Witney for. And as Jerry pointed out, it's got a terrific performance from Skip Homeier,

12:44 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry and Blake, you have me quite curious about THE OUTCAST. :)

Toby, you're gonna love it when you get there. :) So glad I got the chance to see this film.

Best wishes,

10:43 PM  
Blogger KC said...

Well you've got me curious! I keep thinking that westerns aren't my genre and this increasingly seems to be not the case, particularly where psychological westerns are concerned.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi KC! I love I got you curious!! That would be great if you find certain Westerns which appeal to you. I got into film noir the same way, I started "nibbling around the edges" of the genre, starting out with movies with musical stars like Betty Grable and Alice Faye, and eventually I worked my way further and further in LOL. Perhaps you'll find your interest in Westerns gradually expands. In the meantime, STRANGER AT MY DOOR is an interesting movie, I suspect you would get a lot out of it -- if you catch up with it I'd love to know what you think!

Best wishes,

4:54 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

Thanks for reviewing this intriguing sounding western, which I haven't seen yet, despite having a copy of it filed away somewhere. Maybe your excellent review will prod me into finding it now:-) I'm most interested to see the horse scenes, which Witney was very proud of (trivia: he said the big horse scene was largely inspired by a real-life incident he witnessed on the set of the Mascot serial LAW OF THE WILD, involving Rex the Wonder Horse and veteran character actor Ernie Adams. Rex was a beautiful looking, smart horse, but he was also prone to rampages on occasion. On this particular set, his trainer lost control of him, and Rex charged a group of actors who were quietly playing cards between takes. They scattered, and Rex singled out Ernie Adams, who barely escaped by crawling under a nearby Buick. Even then Rex got down on his knees, trying to work his head sideways under the car, in an attempt to bite Adams. Fortunately, the trainer arrived just then.)

11:57 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Maricatrin! I hope you'll enjoy this one and would be very interested to know your reaction.

Great story about Rex! In this film some of the characters escape by getting under a wagon but it's not necessarily enough protection from the horse... It's quite a scene! To the movie's credit, it's so dramatically compelling that -- other than noticing a clear shot of a fake dog (which I found strangely reassuring rather than distracting LOL) -- I didn't even stop to think "How did they *do* that?!" until later. When I did reflect back on it, I was awed in a different way.

Best wishes,

2:02 PM  

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