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We Were Strangers

We Were Strangers(1949)

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If you're wondering why 1949's We Were Strangers is among the least known of writer-director John Huston's and star John Garfield's movies, its new DVD provides the answer. It's not just that it's merely a so-so political thriller made by people from whom we expect more (Huston had made Key Largo immediately before, Garfield Force of Evil). It's also a movie that must have been a political hot potato for Columbia Pictures, its distributor. The heroes of its story are revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the tyrannical Machado regime in 1933 Cuba. The plot, a sort of For Whom the Bell Tolls meets Huston's own The Asphalt Jungle, finds Cuban-born American Tony Fenner (Garfield) back in Cuba teaming with China (rhymes with "Gina") Valdez (Jennifer Jones), the sister of a slain rebel, and a handful of others to carry out a plan to kill Machado.

We Were Strangers might have raised eyebrows coming out when it did, after the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had started brandishing its power to whitewash Hollywood movies of any so-called subversive ideas (indeed, the movie opens with Cuba's legislature caving in to silent bullying and unanimously outlawing public gatherings). Although We Were Strangers wraps itself in protective Americanisms, opening with a Thomas Jefferson quote ("Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God") and presenting Fenner as a freedom-loving American (we only learn later he's Cuban-born), it's a rare American movie with truly anti-authoritarian heroes. And even though it's set in the recent past, We Were Strangers isn't vague about its politics, as the Lon Chaney silent The Ace of Hearts, another terrorist drama, is. It salutes political commitment to egalitarianism and populism in the face of elitist repression as few vintage Hollywood movies do.

The fact that Huston might have wanted American audiences to see We Were Strangers as an allegory for this country's political system isn't the main reason the movie has had such a low profile (it skipped the VHS era entirely). That probably had more to do with the fact that a generation of Cuban rebels emerged in the years after We Were Strangers came out, and they were Fidel Castro's Communists, who ultimately saw America as an imperialist threat, not a freedom-loving big brother. Perhaps Columbia saw the movie as an after-the-fact, Mission to Moscow-style embarrassment, a salute to an enemy-to-be. With U.S. relations to Cuba still not normalized, Columbia apparently kept a lid on We Were Strangers during the Cold War, and the movie slipped into obscurity.

It may have ended up there, anyway, frankly. The suspense in We Were Strangers is rather tepid, thanks to a lackluster set of characters. Garfield seems a little distracted - for good reason, since he was being harassed by HUAC himself - and he and Jones's characters carry out a romance that, even by 1940s standards, is chaste (they're talking about marriage before we ever see them kiss). Meanwhile, the movie supplies a cardboard, catch-all villain in Pedro Armendariz's Ariete, a thuggish police higher-up who not only guns down China's brother in broad daylight, he also tries to seduce her and - gasp, he's a sweaty boor to boot. Although the movie's murder preparation sequences, in which the quintet of revolutionaries digs a 100-yard tunnel from China's basement to a cemetery crypt, get tense at times, it's a bit silly that the villain who'll stop at nothing knows where China lives and has seen her with known agitator Fenner, yet never catches on to the fact that four men are in her basement working away with picks and shovels. Despite shooting some action in Latin America (perhaps even Havana itself), the movie's dramatic credibility also suffers from Garfield and Jones never leaving the studio backlot. Doubles fill in for them in longshots while some unconvincing back projection puts the city behind the stars for tighter shots. Although the print transfer is fine despite what looks like watermarks in one early scene, a splice at one dramatic point is another jarring moment.

The movie's saving grace is Gilbert Roland, who brings much needed heart and pizzazz to his role of philosophical dockworker Guillermo, perhaps the most dedicated of the revolutionaries. The movie's title comes from a touching little speech he delivers about the unity and bond of the disparate group of schemers (look also for Huston giving himself a Hitchcockian cameo, as he often did back then, as a teller in the bank where China works). But robust Roland and occasional diversions like the Huston cameo can't make up for the movie's inability to ever really hit a stride. It culminates in a forced Garfield shootout ending (it feels plucked from a gangster picture) and the even more ludicrous, sunny resolution that follows.

Since, 56 years later, We Were Strangers is more interesting to consider offscreen than on, a documentary extra covering Garfield's political defiance, Huston's wheeling-dealing (reportedly borrowing production funds from MGM, in exchange for then directing The Asphalt Jungle and The Red Badge of Courage for the studio) and the movie's political fallout could have enhanced the disc's appeal. There is none.

For more information about We Were Strangers, visit Sony Pictures. To order We Were Strangers, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman