This is a contribution to the John Huston blogathon currently running at Adam Zanzie’s Icebox Movies site.
John Huston’s 1949 film We Were Strangers, set in the revolutionary Cuba of 1933 and starring Jennifer Jones and John Garfield, has grown on me with repeated viewing. First time round I thought it was pretty good – now I’m thinking it is a lesser-known Huston masterpiece. It came in a strong period for him, just after Key Largo and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and has a lot in common with these, like them focusing on a small group of people forced together in an isolated and claustrophobic setting with turbulent events going on around them.
However, it is much less well-known than these titles and was only released on DVD in the last few years – now available in both region 1 and 2 editions. One reason for it being largely forgotten is likely to be the controversial subject matter, as its heroes are revolutionaries/freedom fighters, or, seen from another angle, terrorists. The movie was released as the HUAC hearings began, which Huston strongly opposed via the Committee for the First Amendment, so, as Howard Gelman puts it in his book The Films of John Garfield, “the theme had immediate political overtones.” The film opens with the defiant words running across the screen “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God – Thomas Jefferson”. The movie did not have a long run in cinemas at the time. According to Gelman, who sees the film as muddled, it was “attacked by both right- and left-wing press, called communist-inspired by the former and denounced as capitalist-propaganda by the latter.” However, I think this comment points to the strength of the film – it is muddled in just the way that real life is. The radicals do have a vital cause to fight for and yet their fight becomes more complicated than they expect and innocent bystanders do get hurt, as well as the group increasingly falling out among themselves.
Great cinematographer Russell Metty creates a stunningly moody atmosphere in black and white. Although this isn’t strictly speaking a noir, it has a noirish feel to it at times, with streets full of shadows and characters who struggle to trust one another. Rear projection was used for many of the outdoor scenes and this is an aspect of the film which worries some people, but I have to say it didn’t particularly strike me. Huston co-wrote this film as well as directing, and appears in a small uncredited role, as he did in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This time he is a teller in the bank where the heroine, China, works.
Huston originally wanted to screen-test the then-unknown Marilyn Monroe for the lead role of Cuban revolutionary China Valdez, but was stopped by producer Sam Spiegel, although she did appear in Huston’s next film, The Asphalt Jungle. It’s fascinating to wonder how she would have played this fiery dramatic role and whether it would have changed the course of her career – but it is a pity if speculation about that is allowed to get in the way of appreciating the performance given by Jennifer Jones, who I think is excellent as China, showing a wide emotional range.
At the start of the film her brother is killed by the forces of the tyrannical president, Gerardo Machado – shot down in the street for distributing leaflets. She vows to take his place in the group of radicals he belonged to, and also wants a personal revenge on the man she saw gun him down, Ariete (Pedro Armendariz). The group introduces her to Tony Fenner (John Garfield) an American ex-pat who is supposedly in Havana as an entertainments agent wanting to find “talent” to perform in the US, but in reality wants to help the fight against Machado. Late in the film it transpires that Tony is in fact Antonio, a Cuban who has grown up in exile and has the same personal reasons as the rest of the group to want a revolution.
After he discovers that China lives opposite a graveyard, Fenner comes up with a plan to dig a tunnel from her home through to the family grave of a powerful figure in the government. The minister concerned will then be assassinated and a bomb detonated at the funeral, killing the president and a group of ministers – but also inevitably killing bystanders, members of their families and other mourners. There is a chilling conversation between the group early in the film when they discuss how many innocent lives may be lost – at the same time weighing in the balance how many people Machado is already killing every day.
A small group of men secretly move into China’s house and start the work of digging the tunnel in secret. Tensions steadily build between them as various members become increasingly dubious about the task they have taken on and start to crack under the strain. The tunnel becomes increasingly symbolic of the revolutionary struggle, as at one point the diggers find themselves having to dig their way through corpses and wearing masks to try to fend off the stench – and at another point China screams when she sees Tony caked in red earth, because at first she thinks it is blood. Of course, in black and white both earth and blood look black.
This is a slightly understated role for Garfield, who thankfully uses his own great voice rather than attempting an accent. The romance between Tony and China is really crammed into just a few snatched scenes, as their main passion is for the revolution. Their love largely seems like a dream of what might have been, in another world and at another time, and isn’t allowed to take away from the main plot. This might explain why initially I didn’t like the film as much as I do now, since I’m a fan of Garfield and he doesn’t have as much scope here as he does in some of his other films – partly because he is playing as part of a group and the other actors need screen time too to develop their characters. Gilbert Roland is especially good as a young revolutionary who often sings impromptu verses of a calypso recounting what they are doing. The film actually ends with a haunting last verse.
However, the best performance is possibly given by Armendariz, as the amazingly sleazy, drunken government official (ie assassin) Ariete, who dogs China’s footsteps, trying to seduce her and also to find out about her links with Tony. His scenes have the strongest noir flavour in the film and reminded me of the dangerous ex-pat world of films like To Have and Have Not.
There are a number of plot twists which I won’t recount in detail as they are supposed to come as shocks. However, probably nobody will be too surprised that the explosion doesn’t go ahead as planned, since after all Huston has to stick to the history of how the regime really did collapse. In a way I suppose this could be seen as a cop-out, since we don’t actually have to see the characters who have been the heroes of the film killing innocent bystanders. But there is plenty of tragedy in the film all the same and they do get their hands dirty, as that red earth showed they would.