“Strangers in the night… exchanging clothing…” as Chevy Chase sang in FLETCH. But he wasn’t thinking of Anthony Mann’s little noir romance, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT, although like his own adventure, this one features shifty rich people in big houses by the sea.
Our hero is likable dullard William Terry, a marine who suffers a serious back injury and only pulls through thanks to the inspiring letters he exchanges with a girl he’s never met. On his way to meet her upon release from hospital, he bumps into cute lady doctor Virginia Grey, and we immediately suss that he’s destined to be with her.
In the spooky clifftop house of Mrs. Blake (Helen ISLE OF THE DEAD Thimig), whose limp and German accent are never referred to by anybody, which is odd since it’s wartime and the heroine’s a doctor. But more to the point, Mrs Blake is off her rocker, and the true author of the letters she claims her daughter wrote to Terry. In fact, the daughter is an early manifestation (or non-manifestation) of the imaginary offspring made famous in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
At under an hour, this early Mann mood piece is brisk and breezy — the plot seems to have wound through more complications than the whole of INCEPTION in its first ten mins — and shares with its no-name leads a sincere, naive charm. This is somewhat compromised by the underlying assumption that childless women are likely to go crazy and start poisoning the help (Edith Barrett, another Val Lewton favourite, known around our place as “Eyes Wide Apart”). This puts it on a par with the sexual anxieties of STRANGE IMPERSONATION, another quality early Mann.
The shaky hold the film has on our conviction is loosed altogether when a character is seemingly crushed to death under an oil painting. Have you ever handled an oil painting? For a piece of canvas with a paint coating, it’s surprisingly light! But along the way we’ve had several interesting insights into marine slang — did you know that “joe” can mean “coffee”? It’s news to everybody in this film, too.