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With the exception of West Side Story (1961), one is hard pressed to recall many movies set in New York City's Spanish Harlem during the early sixties yet Strangers in the City, an obscure, rarely seen independent film directed by Rick Carrier, was shot in and around the vicinity of East 108 St. in 1962, offering a visual record of the neighborhood, streets and shops at that time. Released by Embassy Pictures, producer Joseph E. Levine's distribution arm, the film had a limited theatrical play and then vanished. Despite the lack of well-known or established actors in the cast or Hollywood professionals on the crew, however, the film is an earnest, well-intentioned slice of life drama and one of the few to delve into the Puerto Rican migr's experience in New York City.
The story opens as Jose Alvarez (Camilo Delgado), his wife Antonia (Rosita De Triano), son Filipe (Robert Gentile) and daughter Elena (Greta Margos) confront the desperate circumstances of their tenement existence. Jose is soon revealed to be a dreamer with unrealistic expectations of becoming a famous guitar player. Too proud to let his wife go to work, he nevertheless is incapable of holding a job; he is fired from his first day as a dishwasher at a restaurant because he doesn't want to risk harming his musician's fingers. With the threat of eviction facing the family, Filipe and Elena both attempt to get jobs. Filipe's stint at a local grocer's shop comes to an abrupt end when he is held responsible for items stolen and smashed by gang members who attack him on a delivery run. Meanwhile, Elena is raped by a drunk on a side street and later drifts into worse circumstances, first being sexually exploited by a crude factory boss and then going to work for a sleazy escort service. While the settings and situations are realistic, the director piles on one crushing misfortune after another in his attempt to demonstrate the difficulties of an immigrant family trying to adjust and survive in a culture that is alien to them. Strangers in the City spirals down into tragedy as the Alvarez family are eventually betrayed by their own naivety and lack of marketable skills as much as they are victimized by the city's worst elements.
There is a raw, unpolished quality about Carrier's film that gives it an authenticity that helps suspend one's disbelief in the often melodramatic excesses of the storyline. Unfortunately, with the exception of Robert Gentile as the confused and frustrated Filipe and Robert Corso as the narcissistic gang leader Caddy who torments him, the performances are often uneven and self-conscious. Another drawback is the screenplay's undeveloped depiction of the Alvarez family. Why did they move to New York City? Where did they come from and what were their lives like before? Why are the family members so emotionally estranged and uncommunicative with each other? In addition, the film's final third, which strains for a Greek tragedy-like climax, is too overwrought and hysterical. At least there is a small glimmer of hope for the Alvarez children who have an emotional reckoning on the beach at Coney Island at the final fadeout.
Ignored by most critics at the time of release, Strangers in the City did get a respectable review from Variety which stated, "It may sound overly melodramatic, but this has a neat insight into NYC life, as this producer sees it. Though the pic shows mainly bigoted people, it also depicts how their own weaknesses help betray this family. Much of the weakness is from plain ignorance."
Strangers in the City remains Rick Carrier's sole credit as a director though he did, in fact, work in the exploitation film market as an editor (The Beast That Killed Women, 1965), producer (Rocket Attack U.S.A., 1961) and cinematographer (Confessions of a Bad Girl, 1965). Robert Gentile, who plays Filipe, may be familiar to some viewers due to his work on such TV series as The Defenders, Star Trek and NYPD Blue but his film career consists of only two films which will stand as the final record since he died in December of 2000. Only the film's music composer, Robert Prince, has managed to carve out a long and successful career for himself as a composer of mostly TV series (The Wild, Wild West, Night Gallery, Ironside) and made-for-television movies (Gargoyles, Snowbeast) with a few stray features along the way, including Francis Ford Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now (1966) and Squirm (1976). He was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for The Name of the Game in 1971.
Producer: Rick Carrier
Director: Rick Carrier
Screenplay: Rick Carrier, Elgin Ciampi
Cinematography: Rick Carrier
Music: Bob Prince
Film Editing: Stan Russell
Cast: Robert Gentile (Filipe), Camilo Delgado (Jose Alvarez), Rosita De Triano (Antonia), Greta Margos (Elena Alvarez), Robert Corso (Caddy), Bob O'Connell (Dan), John Roeburt (Grocery man), Ruth Kuzab (Jo), Kenny Delmar (Mr. Lou)
by Jeff Stafford