Stanley Kramer’s 1955 melodrama offers one of Robert Mitchum’s most nuanced performances
With his lazy-lidded resting face and macho. swaggering gait, Hollywood has rarely ponied up a more unique looking superstar as Robert Mitchum. And the actor’s off-camera life was just as singular. He was a tough talking rebel of the highest order who made no apologies for his manners and famously snubbed his nose at the very system that supported him. Most of you know the infamous story of his 1948 pot bust, where when asked by a frenzy of reporters upon his release how he liked prison, he retorted “It’s like Palm Springs without the riff-raff.” While other actors of the time would have withered from the scandal and had their careers clipped, Mitchum owned his perceived transgressions and emerged not only unscathed but even more successful. Mitchum was indeed a bad boy, a baddass…and a great goddamn actor.
And while I pride myself as having seen most of Mitchum’s output (his signature role in Charles Laughton’s haunting 1955 American Gothic Night of the Hunter – my second favorite film of all time, incidentally – is the stuff of legend), Stanley (On the Beach) Kramer’s sweepingly melodramatic adaption of Morton Thompson’s then-popular (and even more soapy) novel Not as a Stranger eluded me. What a treat then, to find the film via Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release and discovering that the picture features one of Mitchum’s most restrained, nuanced and deceivingly muted performances, woven into a well acted, written and directed entertainment that does his work justice.
Not as a Stranger sees Mitchum cast as Lucas Marsh, a deeply driven and gravely serious medical student whose dreams of being a doctor are sabotaged by the fact that he’s dead broke. His widowed, alcoholic father (Lon Chaney Jr.) has drank away Marsh’s life savings and he is forced to do odd jobs at the university to cobble together the cash needed to keep him in school. But when the well finally dries up, the icy young man exploits the affections of an older, well-off nurse (the legendary Olivia de Haviland) and asks her to marry him. And while his best friend and dorm-mate (played by a frail looking Frank Sinatra) chastises him for clearly using the woman for her money and positioning himself as a “kept man”, Marsh blazes in to the union and becomes what must become.
Marsh’s single-minded adherence to medical ethics make him a brilliant doctor, but he soon isolates himself from his fellow man and begins treating his doting wife like a doormat. When he takes over a small town practice, his ego goes into overdrive, threatening to steamroll over every and any good thing he’s built.
Not as a Stranger is in line with much of Kramer’s work, shining lights on peripheral actors and giving them plenty of space to shine and enrich the main narrative with only a few choice lines. Broderick Crawford’s no-nonsense professor (seen in the clip below) is commanding and Chaney (known mostly for his work in horror films) is especially a revelation. While only on screen for minutes, he manages to deliver a career-best performance as a ruined man who cannot drag himself out of the gutter and is fully aware of his self-destruction and his affect on those around him. He also is the one who first calls his son out, remarking that while Lucas’s mind is magnificent, his heart is pure ice.
But he’s only half right.
The beauty in Not as a Stranger lies in Mitchum’s work, though upon release and even today, many critics have cited his turn as Marsh to be blank, expressionless, lazy. But that’s just it. Marsh IS blank. He’s still a little boy who lost his mother and watched his father drown himself is booze and his home life, his stability, dissolve in front of his face, helpless to stop it. Through medicine, that same boy latched on to something larger than he was and would or could ever hope to be. He turned himself into what he had to become to survive, his eye always on the prize. People weren’t to be trusted. Only he mattered.
In that respect, Marsh is a kind of sociopath and Mitchum nails the character, giving us an automaton that, when backed into a corner, explodes into quick bursts of rage, before retreating back into his armor. And when the final moments of the movie wind down and Marsh finally fully hits the wall and Mitchum finally dissolves, it’s startling and heart-wrenching.
Not as a Stranger was released the same year as Night of the Hunter and while Mitchum’s performance as the mad preacher Harry Powell in that film seems on the surface seems to be the superior example of the actor’s craft, his work here is far subtler, a kind of puzzle box that takes a patient viewer to carefully, thoughtfully unlock.
Not as a Stranger is on Blu-ray now from Kino Lorber