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