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A Movie A Week: PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (1952) You’ve heard of success stories? I’m different. I’m a no-success story

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week. [For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]

Today we follow director Jean Negulesco and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson over from last Monday’s HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. It might be my extreme interest in genre film or that I’m a generally assuming ass, but when I saw this movie for sale I thought it was a thriller. Maybe it was the title’s resemblance to WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, maybe it was because it was packaged in a twofer release with THE NANNY, which also sounds like a horror film, and I bought it with another two Bette Davis movies bundled together including next week’s HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, which I know damn well is a thriller. Not to mention that DVD art is creepy! Maybe it’s all of those, but honestly the why isn’t important. One of the reasons I love looking back at these older films is that often times I know nothing at all about what I’m going to watch. I’ll have impressions, naturally, from DVD covers, titles, cast, but unless they’re really huge films that I’m finally getting around to seeing I generally sit down with these films without knowing a damn thing, a clean slate. So, what I expected to be a thriller turns out to be a drama about a troubled man running away from marital problems and the people he meets on the way. Now, by itself that sounds dull as shit, but it isn’t. I’m going to get into some plot when I tell you guys why the movie works, but it involves a moment that I think shouldn’t be known going in to the movie. I don’t think knowing this will mean you can’t enjoy the film, but it’s the kind of moment that changes a movie drastically mid-stream. It’s the bar fight with the green blood in From Dusk Till Dawn. In short, it’s a surprise and an interesting one at that, but it’s not a gut-punching plot twist. So, if you are on the fence about checking this out, I’d just add it the queue and stop reading. If you don’t care or want to know more, then what I discuss below won’t ruin the flick for ya’. Basically in this flick you have Gary Merrill (ALL ABOUT EVE) playing a lawyer running away from a cheating wife, deciding to clear the air and run to the opposite coast. At the airport he randomly meets three fellow passengers. One is an actress (Shelley Winters), one a doctor (THE DAY THE EARTHS TOOD STILL’s Michael Rennie) and one’s a traveling salesman (Keenan Wynn). They are all seated together in a café as they wait for their flight.

The first half of the movie are these guys getting to know each other, establishing their characters solidly. First at the departing airport, then on the plane and at a long layover. Winters is returning to her husband and bitchy mother-in-law, an old vaudeville star, after an unlucky attempt at making a name for herself on the stage. Rennie has a problem with booze and we find out he killed his best friend while drunk-driving, only to say his dead friend was behind the wheel. That secret has ruined his life and caused a divide in his family and he’s on the way home to make things right, whatever penance he has to pay. Keenan Wynn is on his way home to his pretty bride (we know this because he’ll show a picture of her in a bathing suit to anyone who will look at it). Wynn’s the comic relief, always throwing out a joke or an impression, busting out into song or throwing a pair of chattering teeth on the table. The first half is character development, getting to know these people and see the bond they make. And then, on the final leg of the flight, the plane crashes and our lawyer, Merrill, is the only one of the group to survive.

The second half of the movie is Merrill tracking down the family of each of his new-found friends and fixing what was broken almost as a way for him to figure out his own wrecked home-life. That’s where the title comes into play. Merrill cold-calls the mourning families. I get the feeling that someone involved in LOST, be it Abrams, Lindeloff, Cuse or Lieber, saw this flick at some point and had it in the back of their mind when coming up with the show. Not only is there a plane crash, but the movie’s full of flashbacks. Almost every character has a flashback to their life. We get Rennie’s before the crash and then we discover the others as Merrill pays a visit to each family. And interestingly enough, the flashbacks aren’t always factual, especially when it comes to Winters’ husband and mother-in-law, who hated Winters, thinking she’s an opportunist just trying to steal the family name to further herself and her career. We see Winters through her eyes and then we see an alternate Winters via a story Merrill tells her. Neither are true, but Merrill’s is closer to the memory of her as she was and just what the mother in law needs to hear.

There are two supporting characters of note I want to bring up before wrapping out this review. One is Rennie’s wife in the film, played by Beatrice Straight. As she was introduced something about her voice and face struck a chord with me. I’ve seen her before. Then it hit me. She’s the lady who brings Tangina in to help the Freelings in POLTERGEIST, the one with that great, whispered speech to Robbie about the other side. I always wondered if she had done anything of note before POLTERGEIST and her work in this film is fantastic, solidifying my impression of her as a great actress. She sells the pain of her character, the guilt she feels for helping him cover up the accident and exhaustion from the resulting fracture of their family. All this is shown on her face not so much explained to us beat by beat. The other is a marvelously understated performance from Bette Davis as Wynn’s wife, the one from the picture he was showing around. The beauty of her character is entwined in the characterization of her husband. He’s always the clown, never serious, loud and obnoxious. Davis, on the other hand, is bed-ridden, a cripple and the reasons for her accident are horrible, easily painting Davis as a bad woman not worthy of anyone’s love. But Wynn loved her and stood by her when no one else would, even in the face of the circumstances of her condition. It’s a quiet, understated and tragic performance from Davis, easily one of the best of her work that I’ve been exposed to. Her early stuff hasn’t impressed me, but it seems later in life she really found nuance in her work. Final Thoughts: PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER is a great little character study. I love the fantasy flashbacks, especially coming from the mother-in-law, in which Winters (who we know is a good, down to earth person) is portrayed as a loudmouth drunkard and the mother-in-law (who we know is a bit of a c-word) is draped in angelic robes and makes Mother Teresa look like a gangster. The flick was filled with surprises and a lot of heart. A great find.

Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles: Monday, May 11th: HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964)

Monday, May 18th: TOO LATE THE HERO (1970)

Monday, May 25th: THE BEST MAN (1964)

Monday, June 1st: THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956)

Tomorrow we follow Bette Davis over to HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, a flick I’ve been meaning to see for a long while. See you folks next week! -Quint Follow Me On Twitter

Previous AMAWs: April 27th: How To Marry a Millionaire Click here for the full 215 movie run of A Movie A Day!

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