The Movies of 1944: When Strangers Marry
JAKE HINKSON from Criminal Element
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of film noir’s landmark year, we’re looking at the six key noirs of 1944: Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, The Woman In the Window, and When Strangers Marry. Earlier this week we looked at Fritz Lang’s The Woman In the Window. Today we look at William Castle’s When Strangers Marry.
While many scholars peg Double Indemnity as the first fully formed noir in terms of both style and theme, you can see the genre’s style and ethos taking shape in earlier films like Stranger On The Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and Street Of Chance (1942). By 1944 you can see all of this coming together in the low-budget mystery-romance When Strangers Marry. The film is an interesting specimen of the emerging noir style, but it is of particular importance because it launched the criminal career of noir’s greatest leading man.
The film stars a young Kim Hunter, in her first starring role, as a naïve newlywed named Millie Baxter. She’s newly arrived in New York City looking for her husband, a traveling salesman named Paul Baxter. This Baxter is a heck of a guy. He swept Millie off her feet, married her, and then beat it out of town. Now he’s sent for her, but when she arrives at the hotel, Baxter is nowhere around. He seems to be hiding out, and the film is not very subtle in suggesting that Baxter might have something to do with a recent murder in Philadelphia. Did Millie’s new husband—who is essentially a stranger to her—strangle another man with silk stockings in a hotel room and then make off with ten thousand dollars? I’ll leave that for the film to reveal, though I will say that it does not explore the kinky undertones implicit in the question.
Instead, the film directs us to the relationship between Millie and an old boyfriend, another traveling salesman named Fred Graham. (Millie is apparently a traveling salesman groupie.) Fred is supportive and understanding and clearly still in love with Millie. He’s also played by a young Robert Mitchum. Will he be the hero of the film? Let’s put it this way, in a movie like this, he’s either the hero or the villain waiting to reveal himself. There is really no other option.
When Strangers Marry was written by Phillip Yordan—though it’s more correct to say that it was rewritten by Yordan since his usual practice was to farm out projects to underlings. On this film, he and director Castle came up with the story, then Yordan had a first time screenwriter named Dennis J. Cooper take a crack at it, at which point Yordan came in a did a rewrite. The results are not a high point in the history of noir screenwriting. The plot careens around like a drunk driver, while the dialog sometimes feels clunky and expository. And Millie, naïve to a fault, makes for a particularly hapless leading lady.
Still, the noir ethos is already in place here. A mood of unease hovers over everything, and the plot and all the characters are driven by a single unifying principal: no one can really know anyone else. Moreover, the style of the film fits this theme, an early demonstration of noir moodiness. Shadows and low angle shots predominate, with human figures cut out of blackness by sheer white light. In the film’s best sequence, Millie stands in a cheap hotel room late at night while the flashing lights of the nightclub across the street plunge her in and out of darkness.
The film was directed by William Castle, an often underestimated director who did his share of noir work before becoming famous later on as a producer/director of cheesy horror movies marketed with outrageous gimmicks. Perhaps in part to rectify the undervaluing of Castle’s work some critics have rather overpraised When Strangers Marry. (Film historian Don Miller called it the finest B-movie ever made.) While Castle’s accomplishment is impressive—all the more impressive when you consider that the movie was made for fifty grand over the course of a single week—it is not a masterpiece. It lacks the fierce fire in the belly of something like 1945’s low budget Detour. So while When Strangers Marry is a fun movie, and a notable addition to the body of noir, it doesn’t linger in the imagination in the manner of the best films.
It is, however, a must for fans of Robert Mitchum—and who the hell isn’t a fan of Mitchum? Twenty-seven years old and still a relative newcomer to films (he was mostly shooting cheapie Westerns before this film), he strides through this movie like he was born inside a film noir. It’s not the best performance he ever gave, but one is struck by just how much he already seems like…well, Robert Mitchum. If this movie did nothing but launch the career of the King of Noir, it would be worth watching.
The critical reception of When Strangers Marry was excellent considering that the film had been distributed by the Poverty Row studio of Monogram. An early admirer of the movie was the writer/director/star of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles. Writing in his newspaper column Orson Welles’s Almanac, Welles declared the film better directed than either Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (Paramount) or Otto Preminger’s Laura (20th Century Fox). While that is a debatable assertion, Welles was correct to align the three films which—along with Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (Universal), Fritz Lang’s The Woman in The Window (RKO) and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet (RKO)—represented the full flowering of film noir over the course of 1944. Of the six films, Castle’s was the smallest in budget and scope, but this only goes to show the way the noir ethos permeated the business from the top (Paramount, Universal) to the middle (Fox, RKO) to the bottom (Monogram).
By the end of 1944, film noir was in full bloom. In the years to come, many of the directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, and producers who made Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, The Woman In the Window, and When Strangers Marry would go on to create more masterpieces (or near masterpieces) of the genre. They would be joined by virtually all of Hollywood at one time or another, from the pinnacle of the power structure (MGM, the world’s most powerful studio, produced gems like 1949’s Act of Violence and 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle) to Poverty Row studios that shot movies for pennies (lowly PRC produced 1945’s Detour, perhaps the purest distillation of the noir ethos ever made). 1944 was just a harbinger of the dark—and darkly wonderful—movies still to come.