We Were Strangers (1949)

This is a contribution to the John Huston blogathon currently running at Adam Zanzie’s Icebox Movies site. 

John Garfield and Jennifer Jones

 

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.  

Garfield and the rest of the group feeling trapped as they dig the tunnel

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.

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13 thoughts on “We Were Strangers (1949)

  1. I like this movie a lot as well, particularly because it’s one of the few Huston films where a woman is the protagonist–and Jennifer Jones’ performance here may very well be the greatest female performance in Huston’s entire filmography. I was pleasantly surprised to see her firing away that machine gun in the exciting action climax at the end–who knew that a Huston female could be so Hawksian? It’s interesting that Marilyn Monroe was considered for the role, but I’m not sure she would have adapted well to it. Don’t get me wrong, I love her in The Misfits (her best performance ever) and The Asphalt Jungle, but I don’t know if I could have kept a straight face seeing her in this macho role. Jennifer Jones is simply perfect.

    Still, what makes me hesitate to proclaim We Were Strangers as a masterpiece is actually one of the things you’ve praised here: John Garfield. I admit I wasn’t familiar with any of his other performances before watching this movie and I fully intend to check out the other movies he starred/appeared in (like Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement), but in the case of We Were Strangers, I thought this was a dreadful piece of miscasting. Garfield doesn’t have much charisma here and he and Jones don’t really have much chemistry together, either. And even though it’s revealed in the plot that his character is supposed to be a natural Cuban, I wasn’t buying it. Here is a film where Jennifer Jones is surrounded by hordes of men who are beared and dark-skinned… and we’re supposed to be rooting for the white, clean-shaven American! I sort of resented that.

    I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that Gilbert Roland, despite being an unknown, would have fit splendidly into that role. I love him here as Guillermo, and his delightful guitar solo is probably my favorite scene in the film. When Huston’s camera follows Guillermo as he’s whistling and striding into the next room, I tell you: that’s great cinema. I also think that Gilbert Roland and Jennifer Jones would have had good chemistry, had he been cast in the male romantic lead instead of as the hero’s sidekick.

    As you said here, Pedro Armendariz’s performance as Ariete is a knockout as well. This character could have easily been a hateful, one-dimensional villain, but in that scene where he gets drunk and sobs to China about how everybody in Cuba fears him–including his own mother–Huston actually makes Ariete into a tragic figure. There’s also something poetic about the fact that when he is finally killed, it is not by Tony and China, but by the people. His death comes not as a result of vengeance, but as a result of the consequences of the revolution.

    It’s a very good film and in many ways a great one; it’s Huston’s version of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, if you will. Again, the casting of Garfield as Jennifer Jones’ object of affection leaves me dubious, but nevertheless We Were Strangers is without a doubt an essential title in understanding Huston’s work. Thank you a million for writing on this, Judy; this film deserves more contemporary discussion.

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    • I don’t have much time to respond in detail now as it is the middle of the night here in the UK, but just to say thank you very much for the detailed reply, Adam. I understand your concern about the casting but at that time I really don’t think the film would have been made without famous names in the lead roles, which in practice meant Americans.

      I must just say that I love John Garfield as an actor (for films where he has loads of charisma, see The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul and Force of Evil). While maybe it would have been better to have a Cuban or Spanish-speaking actor in the role, Garfield wasn’t just a clean-shaven American, as he was Jewish and from a very poor background… he was also to the left politically and his career was destroyed by the McCarthy witch-hunt, which also helped to send him to an early grave, so I imagine he wanted to be in this film because of its radical theme. Having said that, I don’t think this is the best role for him and Jennifer Jones seems slightly more at ease in the film. Anyway, thank you again for commenting in detail and for organising this blogathon, Adam.

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  2. I am bowled over by the review, the choice (you continue Judy to set the pace with early 1930’s American cinema), Adam’s fabulous response, and the agreement that the film only recently received teh attention it has long deserved. Yes it was released at a peak period for Huston, (after KEY LARGO and before SIERRA MADRE) and it showcases the work of Russell Metty and the excellent performances by Armendariz and Garfield. And to be sure, Jones is quite fine here too. There’s a lot of tension in this one, and Huston’s orchestration is superlative.

    Splendid and enthusiastic assessment here Judy!

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    • Thank you very much, Sam – I’ll be getting back to the early 30s soon but am being distracted by Shakespeare and Huston at the moment! I’m wondering if the late 40s were Huston’s peak, since everything of his from around that time seems to be of such high quality – but then again I haven’t seen his late film ‘The Dead’ yet, which I know you regard very highly.

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  3. This one I still need to see. It seems to have been a timely work considering the political atmosphere at the time. I love films where both sides of the political spectrum damn the film as propaganda for the other side (High Noon was like that).

    Adam, I agree with Judy’s recommendations here on the three Garfield films she list. They are must sees.

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    • As I know you are a Garfield fan I think you would like this one, John – I really think it is a film that should be better-known. Agree with you on films criticised by both sides often being well worth watching, as the barrage of criticism tends to prove they aren’t just propaganda. Many thanks for commenting.

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  5. Good call there on Garfield’s poor Jewish background; I had no idea he had such a cruel life, particularly meeting the early end because of McCarthy. I will definitely make it a priority to check out his other performances; they may help me revisit his performance here with a more prepared outlook.

    I actually fully agree with John that We Were Strangers works so well, as High Noon did, in enraging all partisans. Although I kinda think it’s less capitalistic than it is communistic! ;)

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    • I also felt the film seems to be more sympathetic to the left than to capitalism, Adam, though I can see why it infuriated people from both sides of the spectrum. Hope you get to see some more Garfield soon – I have a feeling you may revise your opinion of him once you do, as this movie doesn’t really show him at full power, though I like his performance here all the same. He did have a tragically short life but packed a lot into it. Thanks again, Adam.

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  7. Marvellous stuff there Judy, as usual. I’ve had this sitting my shelves for ages now and, shamefully, never got around to actually watching it. I’ll have to try and set that right.

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  8. i need to watch this movie. where can i find it, Tito Renaldo (Manolo) was my father cousin, I m investigating about him, need a picture or somethig

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