Not As A Stranger (1955)

I have no compunctions about admitting that when it comes to cinema, frivolity is right up my street. Comedy (even slapstick), romance, war, noir, Western, musical, sword and sandals: all is grist to my mill. Happy endings, the vanquished villain, the long fadeout on the kiss between the beautiful heroine and her handsome hero, and I’m happy too.
Which is why I was surprised at my own reaction to Not as a Stranger. It isn’t frivolous, not by a long shot; the heroine and the hero are ill matched; and the hero (maybe protagonist would be a better word) isn’t even a particularly nice character. Despite all of that, I still liked it—a lot.

A still from Not As A Stranger

Lucas `Luke’ Marsh (Robert Mitchum) is a medical student, for whom his field of work is an obsession. He’s been wanting to be a doctor since he was six, and now he won’t let anything or anyone come in the way of his getting there.
While his rich roommate Alfred `Al’ Boone (Frank Sinatra) can afford to spend most evenings dating the prettiest nurses at the hospital, Luke spends the evenings working at the laboratory so he can pay his way through college.

Al chats with Luke at the lab

The only nurse Luke ever ends up even chatting with is Kristina `Kris’ Hedvigson (Olivia de Havilland, with a Swedish accent that Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo are said to have appreciated). Kristina is much older than Luke, and tries to help—for instance, by offering him part of her meal when she sees that all he can afford for lunch is a measly sandwich.

Luke and Kris in the canteen

Luke, however, is soon going to need much more than food from his friends. A letter arrives from the Bursar, instructing Luke to pay the fees ($400), failing which he will be expelled. Luke goes, reluctantly, to visit his father Job (Lon Chaney). It turns out that Job, an unshaven, trembling wreck of a man, has used up all the money Luke’s long-dead mother had left for her son—he’s spent it on drink.
Luke is, understandably, disgusted. The disgust is also, perhaps, tinged with some guilt: Job’s loneliness is tangible, and his forlorn accusation that Luke is obsessed with being a doctor, has some justification.

Luke goes to meet his father, Job

Luke tries other avenues: Al, for instance. But Al can only hand over a few dollars—his pocket money—and refuses to approach his own wealthy father to help Luke out; he knows the old man will refuse. Luke next talks to Dr Aarons (Broderick Crawford), the no-nonsense professor and doctor who got Luke his job at the laboratory. Dr Aarons suggests Luke drop out for a year; but for Luke that is just not an option. Finally, Dr Aarons hands over $75—it’s all he can afford.

Dr Aarons has a chat with Luke

When Luke goes to the Bursar, he is told that all he will get is a month’s grace; after that, if the money hasn’t been deposited, Luke’s out.
While battling his financial problems, Luke’s also been hard at work studying. At his request, Kris manages to get Luke and Al to witness an operation; once it’s over, she invites them to a smorgasbord she’s doing at the home of her friends. Al is inclined to refuse and is surprised when Luke accepts.

Kris invites Al and Luke to a smorgasbord

Kris’s smorgasbord is good. The evening’s a disaster. Her friend Bruni (Virginia Christine) is nice enough, but Bruni’s husband Oley (Harry Morgan) is a bore, a dimwit and a glutton who never gets a joke unless it’s explained to him. He and Bruni pull Kris’s leg about her being still single, and tease her about all the money she’s been saving up (around $4,000 in the bank already): where will all of that go if she doesn’t get married?

Dinner with Bruni and Oley

Over the next few days, Kris, to her delight, finds Luke being surprisingly attentive. He asks her out on a date, tells her that he likes being with her—and finally, after a few dates, proposes.
To begin with, Kris can’t believe that Luke would want to marry her. She adores him (she confesses to Bruni that she’s been in love with him since the first day she saw him—long before she even spoke to him). But why, she thinks, would a magnificent man like Luke want to marry a dowdy old maid like her? (Yes, well: Olivia de Havilland is hardly dowdy, but anyway).

Kris can't believe her luck

Luke manages to persuade Kris that he loves her, but then breaks the bad news to her: he may be expelled any day from the medical college. When Kris gets to know why, she’s adamant that Luke use the money she’s got saved up in the bank; when will that come in use, if not now?
When Luke tells Al that he’s marrying Kris, Al’s flabbergasted, and eloquent. He accuses Luke of not loving Kris, and Luke’s response is matter-of-fact: “She’ll never know.” It’s only when Al tells Luke that he’s selling himself—that he’s “letting himself be kept”—that Luke loses his temper and bashes Al.
They make up, but the truth lurks about in the background.

Al and Luke have a fight

So Luke acquires, in one fell swoop, both the money to pay his fees, and a bride whom he’s distinctly uncomfortable around. Their wedding night itself is an awkward one, with Kris finally having to take the initiative and fling her arms around Luke, telling him how much she loves him. It takes Luke a while to repeat the words to her, but Kris doesn’t seem to realise: she’s too blinded by love (and also perhaps by her relief at not having to die a spinster) to see that this marriage isn’t quite the ideal one.

Luke and Kris get married

Life goes on, with Luke driving himself, his fellow students, and his professors up the wall with his single-minded devotion to medicine. He doesn’t tolerate mistakes, he looks down on the commercial aspects of medicine, and he won’t let anybody—including himself—be anything but perfect when it comes to the profession. Job dies in an accident, and for a brief, lucid moment, another side of Luke is revealed.

Luke reacts to Job's death

When he finally graduates, Dr Aarons admits that Luke is the most brilliant of the batch… but perhaps a little humanity should be injected into that brilliance?
Luke, however, setting off to work in a small town called Greenville, sees himself as the saviour of the rural and semi-urban population around. It takes time for him to settle down with his new boss, the likeable Dr Runklemann (Charles Bickford):

Luke hits it off with Dr Runklemann...

It takes time, too, to accept the fact that the head of the small local hospital, Dr Snider (Myron McCormick), is incompetent:

...but not with the incompetent Snyder

Kris, in the meantime, has settled into their new home. She’s no longer working, and begins hinting that they should start a family. Luke, though, disagrees; they can’t afford a baby right now.

Kris admits she wants a family

And one night, fate plays her card. Luke is called to attend an injured stable hand at a posh mansion, and ends up meeting the lady of the house. Harriet Lang (Gloria Grahame) is widowed, lonely, and very alluring.

...and Luke meets the enticing Mrs Lang

Will Luke finally realise that there’s more to being a doctor—and a human being—than being always correct and always efficient? Will he discover that he too is not infallible? Will he realise that he is alienating those who care for him—and if he does, will it be in time?

This is a stupendous, unforgettable film. If you get a chance to see it, don’t miss it.

What I liked about this film:
The characters. The story of Not as a Stranger is simple; it’s the excellent depiction of the characters that makes the film so memorable. There is Kris, an efficient and capable nurse, but deep down scared that she will end her days on the shelf. So scared, in fact, that she shuts off her brain to what might have been Luke’s obviously mercenary attitude: she allows herself to believe that he loves her, even when it’s obvious that he doesn’t.

Then there is Job (ironically enough, aptly named. The Biblical verse from which the phrase not as a stranger is taken, is from the book of Job). Dirty, scruffy, drunk Job, whom even his son despises—but who’s also a lonely and unhappy old man.

There is Al, friendly, comical, yet gifted with the insight (and the forthrightness) to show Luke what he really is. And yes, Sinatra’s acting is very good.

And finally, there’s Luke (I’ve saved Mitchum up for the last!): the perfectionist who makes enemies, who’s willing to sacrifice everything—his honour, his relationships with people—for his dream. Yet, there are tantalising glimpses of another side to this hard, cold man: his reaction when he goes to his dead father’s house; his desperate rush to save a man dying of pneumonia; his affection for a little girl with a limp. No, he’s not a very nice person, but every now and then, there are signs of what Luke could be, if only…

The hospital scenes. I’m squeamish, so was a little apprehensive: but thank heavens, all of it was discreetly done from tasteful angles that showed operations and medical procedures, but no blood and gore. And it’s still very convincing.

What I didn’t like:
Medical students in their late 30’s? Come on. Granted, both Mitchum and Sinatra are great actors (and Mitchum looks awesome even at 38), but neither of them looks young enough to be a student.

Little bit of trivia:
Lon Chaney, who acted as Robert Mitchum’s father in this film, was actually only 11 years older than Mitchum. And Olivia de Havilland was only a year older than Mitchum.

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11 thoughts on “Not As A Stranger (1955)

  1. Thanks so much for this, dustedoff! I remember watching this one a while ago but couldnt for the life of me, recall the name. It really was a very compelling drama – inspite of all the jarring touches you’ve noted. For me, the only part that stretched my suspension-of-disbelief beyond breaking point was Olivia de Havilland being an “unattractive old-maid” (she was supposed to be unattractive in Gone With The Wind, too!) – she just doesnt look it! But that apart, I remember finding the film oddly romantic – not in a melt-into-a-puddle-romance kind of way, but in a more substantial and satisfactory kind of way. Wish I could find it again (or maybe TCM will bring it on, again!).

  2. You’re welcome. This is a gripping film, and very hard to shake off. I’m really not that much into drama, but Not As A Stranger just bowled me over… and yes, I thought it was so beautifully romantic too. I love the end!

  3. I’m yet to sink my teeth into hollywood b&w gems the only one i’ve seen so far is ‘All about eve’ which i loved. with bollywood b&w i know should i get bored of the script the songs will keep me up

  4. Ah, All About Eve is one I haven’t seen as yet!

    Among the reasons I like old Hollywood films is that they tried a lot of different genres; Bollywood of the 50’s and 60’s tended to stick to some tried and tested formulas, so barring some unusual films (like the Dara Singh starrers! – or the occasional comedy/historical/mystery), there is comparatively little to set them apart. Other, of course, than the music. And as far as I’m concerned, Hollywood never managed to quite touch the heights that Hindi cinema was able to achieve when it came to awesome music – or even the integration of songs into films. I can probably count on my fingertips Hollywood films where songs don’t stick out like a sore thumb!

    That said, old Bollywood has its own charm, and old Hollywood its own – have a look through my list of reviewed films and you just might find some recommendations! :-)

  5. That is so true. Not only was there more variety among Hollywood films of those days (these days they are either ditzy romances/comedies or special effects fests!), the women had so much more freedom compared to their Bollywood contemporaries! Can you imagine an older woman-younger man romance in Bollywood, even now? Or a “heroine” who committed adultery and didnt spend her life in purgatory after that? And the best thing about Hollywood romances is that romance does get a decent chance – unlike in Bollywood where family, honor, duty and male-friendship always come out on top, individually or collectively!

    But yes, nothing like old Bollywood music, EVER – except maybe Sound Of Music?

  6. Yes, Bollywood in the 50’s and 60’s (well, even 80’s and 90’s) tended to stick to a few well-tested rules, which they refused to break except in some daring experiments. Frankly, even the good mystery/thriller or comedy films are so few and far between, one would say that social drama was more or less a synonym for Hindi cinema.
    I agree with you completely that women were given far less freedom than in Hollywood; even an educated, urban heroine was expected to stay at home until the hero came and swept her off her feet. And I love your take on romance – so, so true! Romances in Bollywood were continually being sacrificed to other considerations!

    The Sound of Music was the one film I had in mind when I wrote about music that was fabulous, and fitted in well with the film! Fiddler on the Roof too, I think – though still not as thoroughly sublime as The Sound of Music: that, in my opinion, is Hollywood musical at its best. And oh, I love that scene when they’re dancing outside, or I must have had a wicked childhood… so gloriously romantic! *starry-eyed now*

  7. I know. That scene is lovely – and sooo romantic. Though nowadays when I see the film, the unwelcome thought always enters my head that the guy has seven kids – kills the romance most effectively!!!! ;-)

    But the songs of the film are sublime – I can listen to them outside of the film too. Something you can always do with Bollywood songs but never ever with Hollywood musicals – the songs are too much like sing-song dialogues.

  8. “the guy has seven kids – kills the romance most effectively!!!! ;-)”

    And the eldest is old enough for her own romance! But anyway, I think Plummer looks so gorgeous (much, much better than the original) that I can forgive him for that!

    One of the worst examples of sing-song dialogues I’ve seen is An American in Paris. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are such superb dancers, but they’re wasted on the songs, which are really quite awful. On the other, another film that had great songs – Oklahoma! – was otherwise boring and silly.

  9. O ya Plummer does look very debonair. The original looks like the martinet Plummer is supposedly playing in the film!

    I saw a stage version of Oklahoma on TV a while ago and the only reason why I stuck with it was that Hugh Jackman was playing the lead. I dont remember much of the songs – just remember thinking that Hugh Jackman was doing a darned good job of singing (and I think he was singing for himself)! As to An American In Paris – I think Hollywood’s problem was that they expected the dancers to sing and singers to dance. If they’d only gone the playback way – Kelly, Caron, Ginger Rogers, et al, could all have danced to way better music and songs than they got!

  10. Oooh, I’d have liked to see Hugh Jackman – he’d make even something as boring as Oklahoma! look good!

    Re: singers singing and dancers dancing: perhaps that’s part of the reason The Sound of Music succeeded? Not much dancing there, but the singing included playback by others – Plummer’s singing, for instance, was dubbed. But then, there’s also the whole point about the way songs were fitted into films, the picturisation, the orchestration: everything. Honestly, I watch Jane Russell singing what’s supposed to be a sultry number in Macao, and I imagine what an OP Nayyar (or SD Burman, or whoever!)/Geeta Dutt/Helen combo could have achieved in such a situation. There’s no comparison. ;-)

  11. Pingback: Not as a Stranger (1955) | Old Old Films

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