Monday, August 4, 2008

We Were Strangers (1949)

“We Were Strangers” (1949) is poetic homage to failure perhaps even more than it is to the fight for liberty, and seems to be one of director John Huston’s more neglected films. It is a good film.

A group of strangers are brought together in 1933 Cuba to form an arm of the revolution against the corrupt government. Only one, played by John Garfield, is what we may call a professional revolutionary. The rest are common people who have lost loved ones to the government’s oppression. Among them are four other men, including a dock worker, a bicycle mechanic, an academic, and one woman played by Jennifer Jones.

Here again she displays her knack for losing herself in a role, and is believable as a young Cuban woman who struggles with her desire to revenge the murder of her university student brother, and also her desire to simply escape the madness around her and live a normal life. She attempts a very slight Cuban accent which is quite natural sounding, down to the cadence and inflection of her voice and not simply playing at a caricature of rolling Latin consonants. However, she’s able to hold the accent better during longer bits of dialogue; she tends the lose the accent when she has only brief lines to say. All the other members of the group are well-known actors of Spanish heritage. Only John Garfield makes no attempt to speak with a Cuban accent. His character is a Cuban exile who has lived in the United States for ten years. Though he would likely continue to have an accent, I suppose if you want John Garfield for a role, you’re willing to take him as he is.

This group of five men and one woman are brought together in the family home of Jennifer Jones’ character, who is called China or Chinita, the diminutive of her name. Her mother and sisters are removed to a safe location by the revolutionary organization so that the men may dig a tunnel from her cellar across the street to the cemetery. It is the group’s intention to assassinate a powerful member of the government, and when all the rest of the government members gather at his grave for the pomp of a state funeral, the revolutionaries will set a bomb to go off at the gravesite, thereby killing everybody and toppling the government.

The film shows many outdoor shots of Havana, which evokes the story’s setting well. However, the principle actors remained in Hollywood shooting interiors. That they are superimposed with Havana shown as rear screen projection behind them is more obvious in some shots than others. It’s interesting to see how they match up the shots. One such scene has Garfield and Jones strolling through the cemetery at night. Perhaps because the scene is dimly lit and we see the shadows of tree branches across their faces, and the omnipresent sound of crickets, the rear screen projection is not as obvious here.

The action flows well, filled with tension and the threat of danger, yet the film has an ironic lyrical quality to it, a strange tenderness. We seem to get to know the men better than we do leader John Garfield. He is stoic, inscrutable, iron-willed and not given to sentiment. His men are more apt to reveal their feelings. Gilbert Roland plays the easy-going Guillermo. Though his matinee idol days are behind him, Mr. Roland, with his lined, middle-aged face, is still the handsomest, sexiest man in the room. He charmingly steals every scene he’s in, whether it be strumming a guitar (or pretending to), or eating a guava.

The sensitive post-graduate student Ramon, played very touchingly by David Bond is from a good family and suffers acutely the agony of moral struggle. All the men discuss whether it is right to kill innocent people to free Cuba. Each, except for Garfield, fights within himself to stay focused on what they believe in their hearts is both a blow for freedom, and yet also a sin.

The men dig the tunnel in round-the-clock shifts for a month. They are constantly filthy and glistening with sweat, their undershirts clinging to them, grimy with dirt. When they are most weary, they make jokes, black humor, and then conscience-stricken, immediately repent. Jennifer Jones is their front person. She works in a bank and slips documents into files that make Garfield’s assumed guise legitimate, as a traveling talent agent booking Cuban entertainment acts. She is their eyes and ears in the outside world, picking up information, while they are confined to the tunnel.

Though as children she and her brother stole flowers from the graves of the rich people and sold them in the evenings to strolling tourists to buy food for their family, Jones represents not a poverty-stricken class of desperate malcontents, but a family struggling to enter the middle class. They have sacrificed to send her brother to university. She works an office job in an American bank. She is mannerly, soft spoken and professional. The seams on her stockings are straight, and she kisses her crucifix when she has a nightmare. We see she is a good girl, not prone to hanging out with revolutionaries.

Even the revolutionaries are a gentlemanly bunch, cordial with each other and with her. There is no flirting, no familiarity with the proper young woman who cooks their meals and sleeps alone in a curtained off room by herself. Yet when Gilbert Roland’s character takes his guitar and sweetly plays an improvised calypso song of his own invention, with the chilling verse,

“What is wrong and what is right
Will be decided with dynamite,”

also contains as his second verse, a tribute to the lone woman whose days and nights they share for a month.

Roland, standing outside in the courtyard, sidles up to the wall of her bedroom and softly sings,

“Chinita is so beautiful.
Chinita is so very good.
Five men adore our sweet Chinita.”

Sleepless, she has been lying on her bed in the dark and listening to his song. When she hears herself mentioned in the verse, her features soften into a thoughtful expression. It is not even a love song, only a chaste lullaby, and it is the first comforting she has had in the past hellish weeks when she watched her brother gunned down and decided to become a killer herself in his name.

Incidentally, and this is a very small point, but when she is roused from sleep by Garfield, the camera shows her from the back, and we see that her crucifix has flopped over her shoulder. Anyone who sleeps with a crucifix or medallion, or some jewelry on a chain will know this sometimes flops around the neck when sleeping. Possibly Huston wanted to show the crucifix in the shot, as he tends to give much notice to the religious icons in the house. Whether or not, this shot has a very natural quality and looks like she has really been asleep for hours.

Chinita is pursued by local police inspector played wonderfully by Pedro Armendáriz, a sinister thug who revels in his power. Armendáriz plays his role masterfully. He believes she will lead him to the ringleader. He also desires her.

A standout scene in the film is when Armendáriz arrives with flowers, and a meal of fresh fruit and crab to charm her and wear down her defenses, also to intimidate her. Her men scurry away into hiding, and Garfield reminds her to shout for help if Armendáriz molests her.

The arrogant, bullying official philosophizes on his power and how all, even his own mother, are afraid of him. He sits himself down at her table and eats his meal, lustily enjoying the crab, smacking the shells open against the table, sucking the meat out of the legs, ripping the meat from the shell with his hands and stuffing it into his mouth while he continues his boastful soliloquy.

One hopes Mr. Armendáriz actually did like crab, because he ends up scarfing it down like the Cookie Monster. I’d love to know how many takes this scene took. We see the palms of his hands and his fingers slick with the moisture of the dripping crab, and the bits that fall through his fingers, dangle from his lips, as he knocks back glass after glass of rum.

Satisfied he has impressed her, he begins an aggressive seduction, and pours a glass of rum into Chinita’s mouth. Jennifer Jones plays the scene with nervous intensity. This is the man who shot her brother. She walks a tightrope, as some women must do in certain threatening situations, not to appear to reject the man, and yet not to be too encouraging, either.

As much as she loathes and fears him, she has five protective men in the cellar waiting on her word to come out from hiding and defend her. If she does, their plan, their tunnel, and the lives of these men, are over. She cannot call for help without endangering them. It seems she must let happen whatever is going to happen.

Fortunately, he has gotten himself so drunk, his servant ends up dragging him away. He will remember this humiliation when he meets her next, and will make her suffer for it. He also warns her that Garfield will be shot by firing squad, that his American passport will not save him, “Perhaps the rifles will be American.”

Only his anxiety over the consequences of Armendáriz’s lust for her makes Garfield reveal his own passion for Chinitia, and through a cannonade of thunder in the middle of a storm, they map out a future life together of home, children, and a free Cuba. He is such a revolutionary that even his romancing must include Cuba.

The work of the six strangers has been so hard, so fraught with danger they begin to crack, and the sensitive Ramon feverishly rants his anxiety over the morality of killing. At one point, Gilbert Roland, ready to crack up himself, shouts that he will kill Ramon if Ramon doesn’t shut up. Garfield tells him to go ahead. It is not an order, it is not a dare; it is a laconic sort of “I don’t care what you do. It’s up to you.” Of course, Mr. Roland calms down and does nothing. These neophyte revolutionaries take orders with devotion, but left to their own decision making, they still display conscience, which for revolutionaries is a weakness.

Here is where the film itself displays a weakness. Instead of dealing with the risk Ramon represents either by killing him or taking him to a safe place, or getting him out of the country, they are saved by a deus ex machina. Ramon is accidentally killed and it is no one’s fault. Convenient, and kind of a cop out.

Chinita helps dig in the tunnel with the men, because they are falling behind. Their tunnel has reached the poor part of the cemetery, where there are no marble crypts. To their horror, they shovel remains of decaying bodies along with dirt. Still, they plod on in desperation, losing their optimism over their mission, replaced by grotesque, sickening dread.

A twist of fate makes their tunnel useless and their plan has failed. The revolutionaries, worn out and just wanting to go away, disband, as cordially as they came together, and want to use the underground’s money to get Garfield out of the country. Garfield reviles the ignominy of this, but he agrees to leave and take Miss Jones with him. She has also given up her revolutionary zeal and just wants to get away. But the cops are still after them. A last-minute sacrifice each makes for the sake of the other lands both of them back at Chinita’s house defending themselves in gunfight against the police.

We have by this time come to know each corner and cranny of her home very well, its crude furniture, the heavy wooden doors, the cement walls adorned with a large print of Christ and one of the Virgin Mary, a rosary on the wall, the courtyard and the cellar. When the battle begins, the home is ripped up by machinegun fire, and the picture depicting Christ falls to the floor, the picture tumbling out of the broken frame.

Miss Jones handles a machinegun with astounding competence, considering she is supposed to be such a nice girl.

The end scene also has its weakness. As Garfield dies in her arms, a revolution finally erupts in another part of the city and the bad guys are defeated by happy, boisterous crowds. Mr. Armendáriz’s body is briefly depicted as begun hung upside and set aflame, as if foretold by Chinita’s earlier nightmare. We are left with a successful revolution, but with our group of despondent revolutionaries who have failed. It is suggested that failure at least represents an attempt, and that the attempt must be honored, even if resulting in failure. Perhaps. Sometimes failure is just waste. Chinita’s final words of tribute ring a bit hollow.

Despite these holes, the film is typical of Huston’s vigorous style of direction. He also has a Hitchcock-like cameo as a lovelorn bank teller pining over Miss Jones.

Sometimes movies reflect the times in which they are produced, and sometimes the times in which they are produced impact on a film’s success or failure. It is so in this case. Released in 1949, the film was a kind of affront by Huston to the political witch-hunt going on in Hollywood. His own little reminder to them that it is oppression that breeds revolutions in the first place. Stories of revolution, and actors, writers, and directors of politically liberal bents were grist for the mill that ground down the careers and lives of those unfortunate to get in the way of that infamous committee. Dubbed by some as Communist propaganda, the film did not do well at the box office, and was left to fade away, perhaps haunting the resumes of the people involved with it.

That an actual revolution did begin in Cuba within the decade might point to the film’s being rather prescient. Possibly. But Cuba has always been there, and we in the US have a complicated relationship with it, no matter who was in power. At the end of the 19th Century we fought a war there with global repercussions. In effect, the Spanish-American War determined the coming century would be the so-called “American Century.” In the mid-20th Century we faced down a nuclear standoff over Cuba, and a failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Now in the early 21st Century, our Guantánamo Bay military installation and prison in Cuba for suspected terrorists captures headlines around the world for its controversy.

Meanwhile, here is a small monument on Islamadora in the Florida Keys to the Cubans who died trying to escape Castro’s regime over the mere 90 miles of water that separates that country and ours. We have many links with Cuba.

“We Were Strangers” is not a revolutionary primer, nor a portent of things to come in the 1950s, however coincidental. It is less empathetic to revolution than it is to the six hapless strangers. Though today we live in an era where we understandably feel little sympathy with people who plant bombs for whatever reason, it is still a very good movie with the kind of storytelling that combines both simplicity and passion that we rarely see anymore.

For more on the background of the making of “We Were Strangers” kindly have a look at this article on the TCM website by Frank Miller.

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