Odyssey of Nostalgia: The Human Comedy (1943)

PosterIf you can watch The Human Comedy and not cry at least once, I don’t think I want to know you.

Of course, I realize that the hip thing for a modern reviewer to do is denigrate the film as mawkish propaganda… which is only a small part of why you’ll never catch me doing so.

As for the greater part, the timelessly moving scenes in Clarence Brown’s WWII-era coming-of-age drama, written by William Saroyan, more than outweigh any syrupy sentiments. Seen from a vantage point of seventy years later, many of its intimate vignettes powerfully memorialize the personal sacrifices of all those who served—and all those who loved them. Although it may idealize, preach, and meander, the film delivers a handful of unforgettable moments, so heartfelt and honest even in their MGM glossiness that they reawaken the emotional impact of an anxious period which is, sadly, slipping away from living memory.

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Most important, The Human Comedy deserves our respect as a tender, thoughtful elegy for America’s fallen soldiers of WWII. Because the majority of the action takes place in the little California town of Ithaca, the story conveys the loss of an individual with greater poignancy than a standard war movie could.

The main plotline centers on high school student Homer Macaulay (a captivating and unusually soft-spoken Mickey Rooney) who, to help support his siblings and his widowed mother, takes a job delivering telegraphs. (By the way, are you picking up on the Odyssey allusions yet?) Homer thus becomes the frequent bearer of the worst possible news: condolence messages from the War Department. Working in a telegraph office with old-timer Mr. Grogan (Frank Morgan), Homer sees the tidings coming in on the wire for the first time. Far away from the violence of the battlefield, the clatter of typing and the neutral, freshly inky letters of “We regret to inform you…” translate the sorrow of the news by reminding the viewer of an absence, a hole in the lives of the recipients. We don’t see the death. We don’t know the details. And the matter-of-fact precision of the telegraph machine only accentuates the sadness of the news and the helplessness of those about to learn of it.

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Homer grabs the message and heads out on his bicycle to change someone’s life forever, riding to the outskirts of town. Greeted by grey-haired, heavily-accented Mrs. Sandoval, the messenger obviously wants to escape the situation… but Mrs. Sandoval can’t read English, so he’ll have to break the news himself. Hesitating and looking down at his telegraph, Homer rips it open and the message drops to the floor.

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Here, Clarence Brown seizes the opportunity to slow down the pace and draw the audience into the suspense. A cut takes us to the hem of Mrs. Sandoval’s skirt as she picks up the letter, and the camera fearfully tilts up to reveal her expectant face. In the reverse shot, Homer fumbles for a way to break the news slowly. “It’s from the War Department.” Cut to Mrs. Sandoval; she doesn’t understand, but seems to intuit what she’s about to hear. Cut back to Homer. He looks down. He looks up. Finally he forces himself to meet the mother’s eyes. “It says that your son is dead, Mrs. Sandoval…” We anticipate that the bereaved mother will fall apart, as Brown again cuts to the mother’s face, but instead it’s Homer whose voice trembles as he stammers that maybe there was some kind of a mistake.

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The almost clumsy naturalism of the performances, Homer’s futile attempts at denying the news, and, above all, the straight-forward elegance of the staging imbue the exchange with the delayed-reaction horror of unimaginable loss. The scene (which you can watch here) is a masterclass in self-effacing, yet potent continuity system filmmaking.

As the news finally sinks in, Mrs. Sandoval collapses into a rocking chair and starts to sing a Spanish folk song. Unexpectedly, after such a realistic segment, part of the screen dissolves to show a younger version of the bereaved mother, rocking her son as a baby, and then back to the present.

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Is this the mother’s vision? Or Homer’s? Homer lingers in the half of the frame untouched by the flashback, but he’s still visible, included in her vision. Well, I appreciate the ambiguity, but I personally read the effect as a fusion of their mourning in a moment of intense empathy. After all, the WWII-era in America, despite a number of underlying social problems, did encourage people to pull together and feel the pain of others.

And I consider it significant that the first mother Homer must inform is clearly coded as a new American, someone on the margins of Ithaca’s establishment. Since this is an MGM film, even the outskirts of town are quaint and cozy, but you needn’t be a historian to recognize the tiny houses as a glamorized immigrant shantytown. The Human Comedy, for all its schmaltziness, acknowledged that the costs of American ideal were often inflicted most severely on those who’d barely been able to enjoy the benefits of being American. I also applaud that the first war-related death that comes to our attention is an American who differed from the Andy Hardy-esque Anglo-Saxon denizens of Ithaca. The film reminds its audience that anyone who chooses to lay down his or her life for America is a true American, regardless of his or her background.

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Moreover, Homer’s bond with Mrs. Sandoval transcends class and cultural differences to honor a sacrifice and to grieve a loss. Although Homer’s reaction surely stems in part from his worries about his own brother, I believe that the connection he feels goes deeper than that. And therefore never send to know for whom the telegraph comes; it comes for thee.

In this scene and elsewhere, the film wistfully examines the dynamic between absence and presence. Indeed, a narration from beyond the grave opens the film, as Mr. Macaulay explains how, although he has passed on, the essence of his character thrives in the places and people he cared about.

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With Mr. Macaulay’s face superimposed over the images, swooping aerial and crane shots float over the town, eventually zeroing in on the youngest Macaulay son, Ulysses. I strongly suspect that this metaphysical opening influenced It’s a Wonderful Life, made three years later. These sun-dappled, gently descending shots approximate the dead man’s benevolent point of view, almost like a guardian angel’s.

Mr. Macaulay is there, but he is not there—like those who left to fight.

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Despite their physical absence, their continued presence can be felt in numerous ways. For instance, the audience’s first glimpse of Marcus Macaulay arrives when Homer proudly takes off his delivery boy cap to show a group of G.I.s the picture of his brother he keeps there, forever on his mind. To stress the spiritual link between this talisman and the real young man, a dissolve from the photograph introduces the first actual shot of Marcus. In addition to obvious symbols of remembrance, like service flags in windows, the incidents of daily pleasures and frustrations in the town allow us to observe what many of the soldiers are missing… and how they are being missed.

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In perhaps The Human Comedy‘s most tear-jerking sequence, Homer reads his brother’s latest letter aloud to Mr. Grogan. It sounds almost anti-cinematic, doesn’t it? A teenager reading a letter to an old man in a telegraph shop. Yet, in the simplicity of this scene—basically long take medium shots, interrupted by the occasional close-up of Grogan—Marcus’s absence aches.

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Only Marcus’s words, spoken by his brother, remain of him in the moment. Marcus isn’t there, but ironically his presence is felt so acutely, precisely because he’s not there. And Rooney’s halting, sensitive reading of the letter conjures that void where a brother should be. He is utterly spellbinding. Van Johnson, who played Marcus, got tears in his eyes just thinking about Rooney’s performance in a 1992 interview, recalling, “I just think it tore everybody to pieces.” Get your hankies, folks, is all I can say.

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As you watch The Human Comedy, and I hope you will, notice the preponderance of long shots, especially those in deep focus, with a clear foreground and background. Director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. (who worked on Suspicion and A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just two of his best) endows the film with an open, multifaceted look. Instead of showcasing just the stars in the cast, he tends to compose shots with a number of faces and details. Even the most dramatic scenes mostly avoid the glut of close-ups we’ve come to expect from serious acting. It’s as though the film were urging us to remember that, although it tells the stories of certain individuals, everyone’s got a story and they all matter.

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In “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, the French film critic André Bazin argued that deep focus photography, which often involves more than one center of attention, facilitates a more democratic style in film. Unlike manipulative montage-driven tactics, this technique enables the eye to wander the frame so that a viewer can interpret the visual information for himself.

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Now, if you’ll pardon my egregious oversimplification of film theory, The Human Comedy visualizes the American ideals of diversity and democracy through its cinematography. Although the film certainly never yields in its endorsement of patriotism, the liberty allowed to the eye reflects an ethos of freedom and independent decision-making.

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Propaganda doesn’t leave much room for choice, but Brown and Stradling’s abundance of long takes and multiple planes of action and focuses of interest offer the audience a wider world than one might expect.

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In a narrative sense, to evoke part of that wider world, The Human Comedy cultivates one major character who ostensibly doesn’t initially fit with the apple-pie ideal of contentment and family in Ithaca. As Marcus Macaulay’s best friend in the army, Tobey George listens with rapt attention to Marcus’s stories of home.

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Tobey confesses that, as an orphan who doesn’t even know his real name, he lacks everything that motivates Marcus. To nourish Tobey’s hope of coming through the war alive, Marcus invites his comrade to share his memories, to adopt Ithaca as his fantasy hometown.

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In one telling scene, Marcus and Tobey ride on a mortar being transported to the front as Tobey says his prayers aloud—and it sounds as though he’s reading from Marcus’s thoughts, as he recites the litany of home-town sights he longs to visit and to protect through his service. As Brown switches from close-ups of each man looking wistfully into the distance, we can sense the transfer of thoughts and dreams between men from very different backgrounds.

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Through Tobey, The Human Comedy quietly admits that Perfectville, U.S.A. is largely a chimera. After all, like many, if not most, soldiers, he could just as easily have lived and died without experiencing the joys of a tight-knit family and community for himself. Yet, by granting this outsider the ultimate homecoming, the movie gives viewers from all walks of life permission to yearn for that ideal.

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At the end of the film, as Tobey hovers by the Macaulay household, he gazes in at Mrs. Macaulay, Bess, and Mary singing and playing an old-fashioned love song. Framed, contained, and shining, the domestic scene seems like a window into heaven, in contrast with the shadows of the evening and the silhouette of Tobey’s head and shoulders from behind. Here Tobey stands in for the audience members who are also beholding this vision of harmony and probably wanting to be a part of it. He watches the family the way we’re meant to watch the movie. This shot actually echoes an earlier shot during a brief sequence in a movie theater. In both cases, the darkness is punctuated by a square of light and a potent image of hope.

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The Human Comedy isn’t as naive as it might appear. Guess what? People didn’t get any more complex in the last seventy years or so. You can love an abstraction and try to make it seem real… while never losing sight of the fact that it’s an abstraction. In this way, Clarence Brown subtly reveals and celebrates cinema’s power to build dreams—like the myth of Ithaca and the Macaulays—that can sustain a population through tough times.

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No wonder Louis B. Mayer—a ferociously patriotic adopted American—considered this film his favorite of more than 800 movies made under his reign at MGM.

Still, if The Human Comedy rejoices in its own ability to refine and market collective fantasies, it acknowledges that the true credit for those dreams belongs to those who defend them. This drama honors the lives lost in WWII with glowing sincerity by glorifying the values and ideals they fought for, even if those ideals never fully existed in their lives.

In other words, most of us don’t make it to Ithaca—even the men and women who gave their lives for what it represented. But, thanks to them, Americans can keep on dreaming of it. And as long as we do, perhaps, like Mr. Macaulay’s narration suggests, those brave individuals are still living in us.

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Seeing in the Dark: Eyes in the Night (1942)

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The small, rotund man cannot see, although the light is on. He stands in a basement and in a few moments, his enemies will descend to kill him. But he’s not concerned. He taps his cane around the ceiling, listening to the sound it makes on the pipes, until he finds the suspended single-bulb lamp. And with a wry smile and a swing of his cane, he bashes it and plunges the room into total blackness.

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“You haven’t got a chance, blind man.” Two shots peal into the darkness: tiny, instantaneous streaks of light. A metallic noise jangles from one part of the room. Another futile shot. Another clanging feint. Another shot.

“Where are ya?” The adversary’s voice calls, suddenly frightened.

“In the dark… in the dark. In my kingdom.”

As this tense confrontation plays out in Eyes in the Night, the screen remains almost totally black, punctuated only by a few sparks of gunfire. This film about Duncan Maclain, a detective with a visual impairment, reaches its climax by forcing the viewer to live his condition for a few nail-biting minutes. By doing so, this MGM thriller establishes a striking bond of sympathy between the audience and its protagonist and shocks us by denying viewers the visual clarity and self-effacing continuity that we expect from a classical Hollywood film.

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Usually, we movie spectators feel by seeing. We let our eyes supply the necessary information to our sensory memory to understand what the characters are experiencing and our vicarious impression of action, whether it’s a slug to the jaw or a smooch. Our blind protagonist reverses this sensorial metonymy: he sees by feeling. Whether using an awl and a braille template to take notes or stroking the floor of a crime scene to determine which way a corpse was dragged, his fingers guide our eyes in haptic contemplation and force us to recognize the strange link between eyes and touch, a relationship inverted between the seeing audience and Maclain.

When Eyes in the Night aired on Turner Classic Movies this past autumn, I tuned in, anticipating a run-of-the-mill potboiler. I was quite surprised how much this yarn has stayed with me since then. During a dark evening spent at a tense house where Nazis lurk behind every balustrade, Maclain’s sightless eyes paradoxically “see” more than anyone else can. He navigates the blackness with ease and skill; his enhanced senses cloak him with an almost uncanny power.

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The plot offers up one of those odd mashups of domestic drama and international intrigue, in varying degrees, that you get in the 1940s (think The Stranger, Ministry of Fear, Secret Command, or even Mrs. Miniver). In this case, Duncan Maclain, a detective who retired after losing his sight, is asked by a friend to put an end to her stepdaughter’s unhealthy relationship with an older man—and inevitably ends up uncovering an Axis plot during WWII. Did I mention that the bratty stepdaughter’s father is a preeminent scientist, working on research vital to the war effort? Do I need to? Or could you have surmised that already?

The film made it to TCM primetime not because of its nutty plot contrivances, but as a selection from guest-programmer Lawrence Carter-Long, Executive Director of the New York City Disabilities Network, who organized a series around the theme of disability. I’m very grateful that this novel B-movie came to my attention and today I’d like to share it with all of you.

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In addition to its sensitive portrayal of blindness, Eyes in the Night deserves to be watched for its place in Fred Zinneman’s authorial canon as one of his first features, along with Kid Glove Killer which he also shot in 1942. According to the informative TCM article about this movie, Zinneman, who would go on to give us From Here to Eternity and High Noon didn’t give this film a lot of respect when he reflected on his career. Nevertheless, I would categorize it as a promising debut with a strong noirish flair and one brilliantly ahead-of-its-time stylistic set piece, the fight in the dark. The performances instill what might’ve been a colorless entry in the spy thriller genre with a deliciously melodramatic ambiance.

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Ann Harding, returning to the screen after her nervous breakdown, makes the most of a thankless stepmom role as an actress now happily married to the aforementioned Dr. MacGuffin—er, Dr. Lawry. You can read genuine concern over her wayward stepdaughter in her sincere eyes and graceful gestures. Faced with an ex-lover who’s now romancing her husband’s daughter, she goes to meet him in a theater and listens to this aging Don Juan’s florid protestations:

“I love Barbara, utterly and devotedly. If she’ll have me, I’ll marry her. All my life I’ve waited for someone like her—beautiful and talented. Alive as a breath of spring. Now that I’ve found her I’ll never let her go.”

Never missing a beat, she starts clapping, adding a sarcastic, “Bravo…You ham!” What do you know? Mom’s got some backbone! And a whole lot of fortitude.

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Of course, anyone who could spend five minutes in the presence of that stepdaughter without slapping her silly must’ve had more patience than Stanley Kubrick’s clapper loader. Annoying to the point of sociopathic bitchiness, Donna Reed milks her honey-voiced tramp part for all it’s worth. I must confess, I never would have imagined the soon-to-be Mrs. George Bailey capable of hissing nasty, sexually precocious insinuations at her saintly stepmom, like the following:

“It seems to me your duty is perfectly clear, then. You should go to my father and tell him that I’m going out with a bad man. And when he asks you how you know he’s a bad man, tell him. Tell him you know from personal experience.” [Wink, wink!]

The cast also features Friday, a mischievous, scene-stealing canine of the heroic Rin-Tin-Tin ilk, as Maclain’s loyal seeing-eye dog.

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This film was released right in the middle of World War II, so its Nazis-turned-amateur-theatrical-players might strike the modern viewer as quaintly amusing, but would have probably seemed much more menacing to 1940s audiences. Lest we forget, the Nazi ideology advocated eugenics, specifically the extermination of those with disabilities, considered unfit to procreate.

As a person with a visual impairment, Duncan Maclain completely rips apart that monstrous prejudice with his courage, competence, and intelligence. In an era when President Roosevelt still had to carefully conceal his polio-weakened legs for fear that they would damage his reputation, Arnold’s character projects a loud-and-proud acceptance of his disability that I find truly inspiring. Not only does Maclain refuse to let his blindness hinder or depress him, but he also uses it to his advantage. His attitude stands out as probably the most modern aspect of Eyes in the Night.

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Arnold’s passionate investment in his role most likely stemmed from early life experience; his father had contracted a tropical fever while serving in the Navy, which ultimately incapacitated him and rendered him unable to support his family. His vision also deteriorated, eventually leaving him blind. In Arnold’s autobiography, Lorenzo Goes to Hollywood, the actor wistfully remembered his father, “Someone had to be with him constantly, and his only pleasure was to sit in his wheel chair on sunny days in the park.” Arnold would sometimes describe what he saw to his father, serving as his eyes.

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At the risk of inferring too much, I feel that Arnold imbued his character with some of this poetic sadness that he witnessed firsthand. Although he plays Maclain without an ounce of self-pity, the sense of regret that he conveys as he gingerly touches Mrs. Lawry’s face adds to the complexity of his character. He tells her, “You’re just as beautiful as ever. The only time I mind not having eyes is when you’re around.” That instant of melancholy, early in the film, makes Arnold’s portrayal complete. He emerges not as a gimmicky blind detective or as some poster child for not letting a major disability get you down, but as an interesting, quick-witted ex-cop who happens to be blind.

I also enjoyed how Maclain adroitly manipulates and mocks his fascist foes by pretending to be a grotesque stereotype of an infirm, middle-aged man. He insinuates himself into the Lawry house as Mrs. Lawry’s uncle and proceeds to publicly stumble around and even fake a convincing drunk—all in the service of flushing out the baddies. So give this strange MGM B-movie a watch—it’s free, what have you got to lose?—and leave me a comment to let me know what you think!

Click here to watch this film on YouTube or download it at the Internet Archive.

N.B. This movie does contain some unfortunate casual racism in the form of Mantan Moreland as a comical, wide-eyed, offensive African American butler. It’s a shame that this movie, which looks forward in many ways, chose to revert to entrenched tropes for this portrayal.

Destination Tokyo (1944): Guys… and Dolls?

Wolf and NitaIf I mistook Destination Tokyo for reality, I might be inclined to think that, when women aren’t around, men mostly turn into a noble band of brothers who spend their time in ardent discussions of patriotism, responsibility, God, and philosophy. No offense, boys, but yeah right! Indeed, despite its fine, suspenseful construction, this movie would be about as colorless and invertebrate as a sea cucumber if not for one character.

In spite of my unreasonable love for Cary Grant, I admit that John Garfield walks away with the show as Wolf. This gregarious tomcat of a man brings a whiff of truth and humor to the screen, recounting his many conquests and elaborately comparing women to submarines—and subs to women! It’s as if all the sex drive, all the locker room talk, all the virility that we associate with the American male of the 1940s took refuge in the aptly named Wolf. Garfield’s lusty working class charisma buoys the film up and serves as the perfect counterpoise to Cary’s saintly, gracious paterfamilias.

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Two concepts of manhood.

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If Cary’s Captain Cassidy embodies what every American man of the time was supposed to be (or would’ve liked to be), Garfield’s Wolf is much closer to what the man of the time actually was, I’d say. In contrast to Cassidy’s manly perfection, Wolf is exuberantly imperfect. And thus, instantly lovable.

Now, we’ve all come to recognize the tropes that populate any war movie or all-male ensemble cast, including but not limited to: the voice of reason, the intellectual, the Hotspur, the white-haired father figure, the dreamer, the wet-behind-the-ears new guy, and, of course, the ladies’ man. Garfield’s character easily falls into the last category. Nevertheless, he refuses to be defined by that narrow frame.

Whereas another actor might ride this part, going with the flow of the snappy dialogue and waggish idiosyncrasies, Garfield tickles every emotional nuance out of his character. For instance, when he finds a phonograph record under the pillow of a dead companion, Wolf leads the men to play it and hear what it says—expecting something steamy, “Maybe it’s one of those censored records!” When, instead, he’s greeted by the voice of the fallen comrade’s wife, talking about how happy she is to be married to him, Wolf reacts with surprise, amusement, then with a creeping melancholy.

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This mega-bachelor, this charming skirt-chaser suddenly begins to understand what he might be missing, the joy of a relationship, not just a hook-up. Epiphanies are hard to act—they’re so easily overbaked. But Garfield gives us a small glimmer of mental movement behind that mug of his. He’s not converted, but he has gained something.

Unfortunately, much of the so-called “character development” that occurs during Destination Tokyo serves a blatant ideological purpose—the boy grows into a man, the atheist intellectual comes to embrace God, the high priority military operative learns the real nature of courage, not as an absence of fear, but as the mastery of fear. However, in the case of Garfield’s Wolf, the interiority that he communicates doesn’t bring about any major change in his persona.

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At the end of the film, he’s still planning to go and live it up with the dames when he goes back on shore. But he’s a different person. A slightly different person. In life, every experience changes us somehow until the changes add up to make the people we were distinct from the people we are. That transition isn’t complete yet, but watching Wolf in a state of becoming is magical—all the more because we don’t expect those delicate shadings of growth from a basic, carnal dude like him!

The movie’s use of cinematic language also positions us closer to Wolf than to the other men. Interestingly, Cassidy and Wolf are the only two characters in Destination Tokyo who can bring us back to land—that is, their memories trigger flashbacks to the home front that we the viewers can also see. Cassidy visits his wife and daughter in his dreams and, as he faces death, his son’s face flashes before his eyes.

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These idealized visions contrast with Wolf’s flashback to a dame (what else?) earlier in the film.

Whistling “Night and Day,” Wolf launches into a bawdy story about spotting a gal outside a lingerie store in San Francisco. “Ah, she was built for speed, like a destroyer… but kinda compact too, like a submarine. There she was a-comin’ down South Street, right on my starboard beam. The minute I sees her, I says, ‘Up periscope!’”

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Unsurprisingly, he’d been leering at some mannequins when this swell dame pops up—as does a beefy navy type, who horns in, proceeds to escort the babe into the store, and buy her something lacey and sheer as Wolf peers through the window in dismay, nose pressed to the glass. “There I am: anchored. Dead in the water… bulkheads busted in!”

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No sooner does the tomato get her frilly “thingamajig” than she leaves the interloper in the lurch—and turns to Wolf, asking, “Going my way, submariner?”

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Dissolving energetically back and forth between Wolf telling the tale and the actual scene, this sequence interjects a delightful bit of comedy and camaraderie. Wolf comes across as a storyteller with a gift for wringing his escapades for suspense value. He works his audience and the movie’s audience.

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Of Destination Tokyo’s flashback sequences, Cassidy’s images of his wife and children (in real life, the children of director Delmar Daves!) are solitary, linked only to his point-of-view. On the other hand, Wolf’s naughty story is a shared theatrical experience, staged in the imagination of any of the men within the movie who make up his audience—listening to the tale and trying to picture it. The strength of Wolf’s personality allows all involved to escape from the confines of the claustrophobic sub.

I also love the use of sound in this scene. As “Night and Day” continues to play over the soundtrack, almost like a music video, Wolf’s voice-over speaks all the dialogue that accompanies his memory. We hear both the growling tones of his rival and the suggestive voice of his would-be dalliance in Wolf’s voice. He performs his memory (or perhaps his fantasy), like a one-man repertory company! If I were a guy trapped in a metal capsule underwater, I’d want Wolf around…

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The script contributes another nuance to Wolf’s character by hinting that all the stories he tells might be fabrications—because, unlike the other men, he lacks a regular sweetheart. Indeed, there’s at least one clue in the flashback sequence that Wolf was embellishing his tale, if not making it up entirely: he refers to the woman as being “up to my chin” when she actually appears several inches taller than him. Although we do see the sexy scene that Wolf describes to us and seeing is usually believing, we begin to wonder just how much we can trust our narrator.

Is he merely compensating? Like many skirt-chasers, Wolf emerges as a particularly lonely man. In one poignant scene, all the men repose in their bunks, with pictures of their wives and fiancées, whereas womanizing Wolf lies there alone, like a forlorn little boy.

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Garfield imbues Wolf with a tender childishness that saves the character from cliché-dom—and from lecherous creepiness. We’re talking about a man brings A DOLL onto a submarine for heaven’s sake! Certainly, his act of bringing a woman-in-effigy, a hot miniature blonde, onboard strikes us as a slightly kinkier version of bringing, say, a French postcard or a Playboy centerfold. Wolf also explains that he uses the plastic dame as lure to get girls—a pick-up gag. He takes Nita the Doll into a restaurant and talks to it, to provoke the attention and curiosity of real women.

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However, the presence of a toy woman also reminds me of a security blanket or a teddy bear. During the intense depth charge scenes, Wolf braces himself against the shocks in his bunk with Nita beside him as a comfort.

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Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about “transitional objects” like teddy bears, that enable us to transition from experiencing the world as a part of oneself and ones imagination to interacting with a real world, a network of relationships. Wolf seems unable to make that shift completely. Sex is a kind of transitional object for him, as indicated by his flashback, which may be real and may be imagined… or a mixture of the two. Wolf even refers to his physical strength standing in contrast to his “weak mind,” but the weakness stems not from a lack of intelligence but rather from a strange inability to dissociate imagination and reality.

He’s the one, after all, who puts up the silly sign “Los Angeles City Limits” in a Tokyo cave, as if he were mentally transporting himself somewhere else. He’s the one who kisses both the submarine and the torpedo, as if they were women, or perhaps extensions of himself. And who describes sexual encounters like naval battles!

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Nita the Doll, as a transitional object for an adult male, both a fetish and a comforting toy, helps us recognize the underdeveloped boy mentality that explains a lot of why people are willing to fight wars, I’d say. As much as Wolf epitomizes a certain type of hardboiled American manhood, his askew sexuality, his inability to lead a committed relationship, and his confused attachments to objects and fantasies reveal something damaged in him. Garfield’s natural vulnerability as an actor subtly discloses this weakness, underneath the shiny surface of the good-time guy.

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I know this analysis sounds like a bit of a stretch. I mean, isn’t Wolf just comic relief? Well, yes, I’m sure that’s how he was intended, but I feel like the weirdness of this character deserves to be decrypted a little more. In his own small way, he foreshadows the link between sexual dysfunction and annihilation that makes Dr. Strangelove such a brilliant parody. We witness Wolf’s loose link to reality in every loony military leader who takes his aggression or ego out on the world.

He Volunteered for Submarine ServiceAlthough Wolf isn’t unnecessarily violent, “weak mind[s]” like his are often the fuel for the violence of total wars—an unhinged fantasy life makes people do all sorts of strange things. Why else do military posters frequently involve sexy ladies? Because the two things sort of go together. Wolf wasn’t so odd to bring Nita onboard. As this WWII poster shows, girls and the submarine service went together in recruits’ minds.

Whether you buy my thesis or not, watch Destination Tokyo because it’s a startlingly accurate depiction of a WWII American sub, because Cary Grant practically glows with idealized male role model glory, because it portrays several amazing real life incidents—such as an impromptu underwater appendectomy! But, when you do watch it, keep an eye out for the woman who gets the most onscreen time—Nita, Wolf’s doll. And think about what she might say if she could talk.

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~          ~          ~

(As a postscript, I would like to address the fact that Destination Tokyo is very much a product of its time. Slurs on the Japanese like “Nips” and “Japs” abound in the dialogue and I’d be lying if I said that the rushes of victory that the film delivers don’t depend on the dehumanization of the enemy. What’s worse is that the script flat-out demonizes Japanese culture, stating that there’s no word in the Japanese language for romantic love. Okay, wise guys, then how did Shikibu Murasaki write The Tale of Genji?! All that bigotry is Destination Tokyoegregious. No argument there. You definitely wince hearing Cary Grant say, “I hear Japs are happy to die for their Emperor. A lot of them are going to be made very happy,” as bombs drop on the unsuspecting civilians of Tokyo. It ain’t pretty.

However, I would point out that the submariners’ attitudes toward the enemy are realistic, although indefensible. I mean, I don’t expect soldiers to say, “Hmm. Well, your average Japanese fellow is OK, but I’ve got to kill them for many ethical, social, and economical reasons.” War is Hell because it demands that men embrace this kind of nasty us-versus-them talk in order to be able to do what they must.

I think that’s a damn sight more honest than the plentitude of movies nowadays that swap out real people foes for grotesque CGI enemies that aren’t even human to begin with. Those fake panoramas of gore stultify us by letting us enjoy death where there never was any life. Which is why I’d question the ethics of movies like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings right along with Destination Tokyo.

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This 1944 movie does give us at least one moment of almost-enlightenment. When the beloved Mike is killed, Captain Cassidy launches into an informal eulogy about how Mike loved children and was proudest when he bought his kid a deluxe pair of 5-dollar roller skates. Cassidy insists that Mike died for a world filled with more roller-skates—even for Japanese kids, who deserve lives free from inculcated militarism and a doctrine of blind self-sacrifice. We’re still in the realm of propaganda and apologism. Those roller-skates are a rationalization, sure enough, but one that sounds more plausible, human, and admirable than mindless killing.)

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I am proud to present this post as part of the John Garfield 100th Birthday Blogathon, a terrific idea organized by Patti of They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. Please check out the other entries and learn more about this amazing actor, lost from us, alas, all too soon.

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Stop the Clocks: The Stranger (1946)

It really ticks me off when people (including Orson Welles himself) dismiss his thriller The Stranger as, to use one of the dirtiest slurs in film criticism, his “most conventional film,” as a stylish but formulaic product of a genius on a short studio leash.

That’s a bit like saying, “Well, it’s one of Shakespeare’s less good plays.” Because, in both cases, we’re talking about something that’s a hell of a lot more insightful, complex, and entertaining than most of what else is out there.

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Welles takes a taut noir-suspense plotline and packs it with a larger sense of significance and trauma, as though time itself had blistered and burst under the withering, unfathomable atrocities of World War II.

Seriously—how many thrillers can you think of from the 1940s (and beyond!) that had the guts to use genuine newsreel footage of the horrors of the Holocaust as the crux of their moral and ethical stakes? That’s exactly what Welles did. Explain to me how that’s conventional.

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In case you haven’t seen this deceptively ingenious gem, the story concerns a Nazi war criminal, Franz Kindler (a high level architect of the Holocaust and dead-ringer for Friedrich Nietzsche). This evil mastermind carefully preserved his anonymity—down to burning every known photograph of himself—and fled to America after World War II.

Under the name of Rankin, Kindler has blended into life in the idyllic town of Harper, Connecticut and even married Mary (a luminous Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court judge.

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Yes, in the days before Google, who knows what kind of guy you might’ve married?

However, there’s no rest for the wicked, and Rankin’s being relentlessly pursued by an agent of the Allied War Crimes Bureau, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). The determined Nazi-hunter tracks Rankin/Kindler down by letting another war criminal out of prison in the hopes that the freed man will lead him to the big fish.

Kindler kills this hapless ex-comrade, the “little man,” so that he can’t betray Kindler’s identity. The problem is, Mary knows that the “little man” was looking for him. So Kindler has to try to kill her too.

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I admit: it does sound pretty conventional on the surface. But a plot synopsis fails to translate the excellence of this film.

First off, The Stranger looks great and is crammed full of stunning shots. We get a tense long, long take during which Rankin slowly turns back into Kindler as he kills his former friend—and while praying no less!

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Typical Wellesian angles crop up and enliven even the most rudimentary of scenes with a cockeyed creepiness. Through shadows so looming and poetic that they sometimes distract you from the plot, Welles paints a world subtly tattered and worn-down. Not even Harper, the hallowed bastion of New England purity, escapes the impact of a global trauma.

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After the war, we understand, things are different. And they won’t ever be the way they were. A piece of the world’s innocence has died. It’s broken. Gone forever. The Capra-esque, quaint little town of Harper has changed irreversibly.

I even wonder to what extent Mary’s discovery of her husband’s awful true self is actually a reflection of American veterans coming home from World War II as strangers to their wives. Perhaps the evil Nazi is just a stand-in for damaged American manhood, for the prison of post-war domestic life. Even commercial ads from the 1940s betrayed a noirish quality, like this one for Listerine!

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Look familiar? The following shot is from The Stranger, as Rankin looms over Mary in bed.

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In the wake of a global conflict, Welles depicts a troubling, warped pretense of normalcy. A creeping penumbra and crazy angles turn ordinary places like high school gymnasiums and events like faculty tea parties into cauldrons of fear and roiling secrets.

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I particularly appreciate how Welles uses clocks and mechanical devices, usually so reliable and quotidien, to create disorientation and explore the breakdown of perception.

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You see, the evil Franz Kindler, when not planning mass murder, has a passion for clocks and watches, which seems very apt indeed, considering the ruthless “clockwork” execution of the Final Solution. There are lots of allusions to clocks and clockworks.

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Mr. Wilson first gets his wind up that Harper is the place to find Kindler when he sees the hands to the clock on the Harper church tower spin around wildly while being fixed. After the “little man” manages to whack Mr. Wilson over the head with a piece of swinging gymnastic equipment in the Harper Academy gym, the rope swings back and forth in front of him, like a pendulum.

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When Kindler sets out to kill his wife, he writes up a little itinerary with specific time coordinates.

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Throughout the film, Kindler, a control freak if ever there was one, keeps returning to an old grandfather clock and winding it up, trying to make the old thing keep time.

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At the risk of getting too analytical, time is really one of the two media that make up the essence of cinema—the other is space, of course. So, how can we read or interpret Kindler’s repeated gesture, portrayed with some of the film’s most ominous and beautiful chiaroscuro lighting?

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We can perceive a slight metafilmic joke in Orson Welles as Kindler winding up the clock. (Incidentally, when Hitchcock made his cameo in Rear Window, he too is winding up a clock in the composer’s apartment.) Are we seeing the director as the artistic tyrant, the keeper of time dissolve into the sociopolitical tyrant, trying to make the world keep time with his unthinkable schemes?

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I might be overstating my case, but I think that we can infer a connection between the two most powerful mechanical devices in The Stranger: the clock and the film projector that reveals to Mary the extremes of what her husband (and mankind in general) is capable of.

At almost the center point of the film, Kindler/Rankin has confessed to Mary that he killed the man who came looking for him, but he claims that the “little man” was a blackmailer who would have threatened their happiness. Willing to conceal this justified murder and lie to protect her husband, Mary is called to visit her father and talk to Mr. Wilson.

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When she gets there and opens the door, the room is dark and flickering with projected footage. The lights come on and Mr. Wilson softens Mary up with a few questions—a body was uncovered in town, did you know him, ect.—before asking her to watch a film. The lights go out again and before we even see what Wilson’s projecting, the look of appalled stupefaction on Mary’s face makes us wonder what she’s seeing. Then we see. It’s a screen full of dead bodies.

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A moment ago, Mary thought she was involved in a murder mystery. That’s still true, but now the mystery isn’t whodunit—it’s howcouldsomeonepossiblyhavedunit? In place of one dead body, we get too many to count, too many to mentally process, strewn across the ground without emotion or order as the camera impassively pans across them.

Clearly shocked, Mary protests that she’s “never ever seen a Nazi.” But, and this is key, Wilson explains that they can look like normal people and act like normal people if it benefits them. I find it hard to believe that this statement is only supposed to apply to Franz Kindler in this context. After WWII, a lot of people nursed the belief that the people who committed atrocities were somehow different from the rest of us. It turns out, as Milgram’s obedience studies from 1960s have shown, a disquietingly large percentage of the population will kill if told that an authority figure takes full responsibility.

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But back to the scene, which suddenly turns documentary, as Wilson explains some of the more awful points of the concentration camps, like the gas chambers and the lime pits—and you see them. As does Mary.

Of course, using newsreel footage in fictional movies wasn’t so unusual—Casablanca, for example, is punctuated and grounded in reality by choice morsels of grainy footage: advancing Nazis, downtrodden refugees, mortars discharging their fire over Paris. Nevertheless, war on an open field had been filmed in WWI and audiences were used to seeing it. Even today, if you want to watch those Holocaust newsreels on websites, you get a warning that it’s disturbing, mature content.

And it’s one thing to see it in context as a newsreel, which occupies a fixed place in one’s schema of documentary media. You expect to see awful, real things in the news. You’re at least braced for it. In a movie? Not so much.

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A Nazi gas chamber projected in a Judge’s house in Connecticut.

To show footage from the concentration camps in a general admission fictional film is pretty damn radical, not to mention risky from a moral standpoint. (One thinks of the actual shots of Bruce Lee’s funeral used to mercenary and meretricious effect in Game of Death.) However, there’s nothing cheap and exploitative about how Welles inserts Holocaust images into The Stranger.

Including those indelible images in a made-up story, Welles blurs the line between the dream world of the movies and the real world, and, by mixing these up, he gives us a reality check that documentary footage alone cannot provide. Just as Mary wakes up to the evil that Rankin/Kindler harbors within him, we the viewers are jolted out of the diegesis of a pleasant little thriller to understand that this happened and will forever mark our memories.

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Woman in the dark: Mary watches the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Reflecting on the Hiroshima tragedy, Marguerite Duras pointed out that we can’t even talk about it—we can only talk about the impossibility of truly talking about it. Welles finds a way around this dilemma of portraying the Holocaust by just borrowing newsreel footage. But he doesn’t do so in a “BAM! Truth at 24 frames per second!” manner. He takes care to suggest that this is not the whole picture. He carefully makes us see that we’re not seeing the atrocities—we’re seeing a film of the atrocities projected onto a screen… and filmed by another camera.

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We’re looking at a film of a film of the Holocaust.

The degree of separation, however, rather than hinting that we just can’t comprehend what happened, brings up the idea of individual cultural trauma. I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw that footage on YouTube (I had to lie and say I was over 18 and willing to watch disturbing footage in the name of historical interest).

That footage of the camps and the wide-eyed Allied liberators has become more than a document or an artifact. It represents a rite of passage, a kind of frozen moment in time that we all have to encounter at some point, a point that will then crystallize in our lives and haunt us. Can we wrap our minds around the sheer mechanical abomination of that footage? No. But it stays with us. The experience of watching that grainy phantasmagoria of suffering becomes an enclosed moment, a rupture in time.

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To get back to the scene, I find it significant that the images are not just projected onto a screen, but, at times, onto Mr. Wilson’s face. He is part of the screen, and he casts his shadow onto the image. Now, I don’t want to tread on what Welles himself called “the jagged edge of symbolism,” because the materiality of the characters, the room, and the image itself save the scene from trite symbolism. And yet, watching Edward G. Robinson interact with those images that seem to fuse with him conveys so much about the strange way in which cultural traumas both escape us and live in us.

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Here’s where the strength of the movies comes in: I can’t express this in words half as well as Welles can with images. I don’t want to explain all that. I want you to watch the movie and tell me if you see it—or more importantly, if you feel it.

And then there’s the motion of the film reels, turning at a regular pace and rhythm, ’round and ’round like the gears of a clock. Even once the film strip has run out, the reel continues to spin, the tail end of the celluloid slapping against the table and giving us another little wake-up call. The shots of the gears of the projector foreshadow images of the gears of Harper’s clock spinning out of control at the grand finale of the film.

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The out-of-control film projector…

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…and the out-of-control clock tower gears.

In a way, the clock is inextricably linked with the movie projector as both introduce a looming sense of dread that intensifies in the final third of the film.

Immediately after this scene, Franz Kindler/Rankin fixes the Harper clock and it chimes out—waking up the entire town as Kindler looks down at them from the top of the tower, godlike.

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The villagers come running to investigate the newly working clock.

Having disturbed the peace of the town, the clock continues to strike at important moments for the rest of the film. For example, as Kindler saws away at the ladder to the top of the church tower, planning Mary’s “accidental” death, the clock strikes—meanwhile, Wilson looks at the tower from his hotel room and, at the Rankin house, the sound keeps Mary from sleeping.  We see her tossing and turning as it tolls in the night. In a series of three shots, the sound connects the central characters.

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The devil rising: a mechanical demon moves in front of the face of the clock as Kindler engineers his wife’s death and the chimes sound out.

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The sound of the chiming links together all of these shots and stresses the relationship between the incarnations of good and evil, Kindler and Wilson—both could actually be “the stranger” referred to by film’s the title—and the ordinary woman trying to negotiate the right path between them after making a very big mistake.

The clock’s tolling also coincides with and sort of exteriorizes the knowledge of those horrors that Mary witnessed. The sound design of the clock’s booming chimes makes the “home stretch” of the film more taut, implacable, and tense.

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But it’s really at the end of the movie where the clock-cinema connection clicks, as Kindler holes up in the clock tower, where Mary comes to kill him with Mr. Wilson in pursuit.

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Mary takes a wild shot at Kindler and misses, but hits the clock mechanisms and sends them spinning out of control.

Her shot prompts a gorgeous set piece of accelerated montage as the wounded Kindler tries to escape—whirring gears, shots, jerky movements, a fall onto the face of the clock. Just as the gears of the clock have accelerated beyond reason, so the well-paced, patient suspense of the film gives way to a frenzy of quick cuts. The clock and the cinema freak out in tandem.

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Is the scene a little allegorical? With Mary as an avenging angel… and the actual angel statue on the clock stabbing the demonic Kindler and sending him to his death? Probably, but there’s something even more cathartic going on.

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32The scene ends with a shot of the face of the clock, the hands revolving madly, mimicking the fruitless spinning of the film projector when it ran out of newsreel footage. Some trauma lies beyond time, beyond what can be shown, but that incessant, unreasoning, out-of-control cycling hits a very emotional chord.

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Some collective memories or experiences are so vast and awful that they make our heads spin. We can’t ever understand those pivotal moments in history, just like we can’t ever take the derivative of a single point in mathematics. The weight of these remembrances make our usual linear conceptions of time and memory judder, overheat, and careen off of any framework of calculation. They mark the asymptotes of our cultural perception and recollection. And The Stranger helps us to understand this. Time itself seems to go haywire at the end of the film, as if the magnitude of the horrors of WWII had created a cultural momentum that derails all sense of narrative or fiction.

The Stranger manages to stare down the barrel of some of the most hideous things that humans have ever perpetrated against each other and pack that kind of ugliness into a genre picture! In my mind, it’s the direct ancestor of a film like Hiroshima, Mon Amour that manages to be both a love story in a silent era way and an avant-garde Mobius ring of loss and desire on macro and micro scales. The only difference is, The Stranger works on your mind subtly, without you totally realizing it. I’ve always really liked, respected, and enjoyed this film—even before I knew a jump cut from a jump rope. There’s something healing about it in the end, even if you’re not watching it for a dose of Wellesian genius.

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If you want a suspenseful, entertaining B movie, you’ll get it. But if you want an exorcism of a collective trauma and a darkly beautiful tale of deception, undeserved love, and a thinking conflict between good versus evil, you’ll find that too—even in as, ahem, conventional a film as this one.

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The Stranger is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch it for free right now! Download it at the Internet Archive.