Monday, February 13, 2012

A Forgotten Gem from John Huston

We Were Strangers (1949) is a beautifully crafted film from John Huston that shows the director at his most passionate and urgent, as he gives us a world in which the little man, the everyday man who suffers at the hands of a corrupt leader, must fight this injustice for the good of his countrymen as well as his own soul.

The film is set in Cuba of 1933 where real-life President Machado leads a government that "made a mockery of human rights" as we are told in the opening titles. The people had suffered under this leadership for seven years and a few small cliques are starting to form on the streets; their aim to take back the rights they have been stripped of. Huston includes a quote from Thomas Jefferson; "Resistance to tyrants in obedience to God." We have no doubt where the director stands on this matter.

To combat the unrest among the people, a politician loyal to the president urges the Senate to pass a bill that will make assembly of four or more people in public an act of treason against the government. The head of the Senate asks the elected officials to vote; one by one they stand in support of this legislation. Huston gives us closeups of a few senators who clearly oppose this, but as they realize that their true feelings will lead to the ruin of their career (or worse), they too stand in support of the bill, which is passed unanimously.

We then see a car with four people maneuver through the streets of Havana; this group is distributing leaflets reading "Viva Cuba Libre." A few members of the public pick up these papers and as they read them, the police arrest them as they carry out enactment of the new law.

The police follow the car and are able to shoot the driver; he is left for dead by the others who must save their own skin. They meet with China Valdes (Jennifer Jones), a bank employee who is the brother of Manolo, one of this group. They discuss strategy and soon afterwards as they make their way through Havana, a policeman named Ariete (Pedro Armendariz) shoots and kills Manolo in clear daylight. China sees this from a short distance away; she knows that Ariete is the murderer, but he does not know that she saw him perform the killing.

The following day, China attends a pre-arranged meeting with Tony Fenner (John Garfield), an American businessman who is in Cuba ostensibly to find talent for entertainment revues, but is, in reality, there to fight for the people of Cuba. Funded by money from ex-Cubans living in the United States, Fenner has a plan to win back the freedom of the populace. He will dig a tunnel under the main cemetery and explode a bomb just underneath the crypt of the Contreras family, a member of whom is a popular politician supporting the government. Fenner's plan is to assassinate him and detonate the bomb at the funeral when the president and other heads of state are present.

Photographed in shadowy black and white by Russell Metty (a great cinematographer who would go on to film Orson Welles' Touch of Evil  in 1958 in similar starkness), the film does a nice job of portraying the dark grittiness of the everyday people as opposed to the brightly lit, well-dressed world of the government officials. It's a nice touch to have the people who have been wronged literally doing their fighting underground, while the police wander the streets above.

An intriguing theme in this film is the question of how these men must live with their decision after they are told by one of the ringleaders that innocent citizens may be killed as a result of their deeds. "Should we, who are trying to free Cuba become murderers too?" asks one of the conspirators. Each man wrestles with his conscience, ultimately convincing themselves that they are serving a greater good. It's complexities such as this that lets the viewer relate to these troubled individuals.

As with many Huston films, plans go awry, as the digging leads to a figurative dead end, through no fault of these men. They will now have to come up with another plan to take back the government, an approach that will put both Fenner and Valdes directly in harm's way.

Huston's direction is urgent, yet he does not rush things here; instead he takes his time explaining the caper. There are many closeups which are appropriate here, both in terms of physical space in the frame (digging a tunnel under the cemetery), as well as emotional satisfaction, as we see the faces of the individuals who tell their stories of how they have been wronged by the government. The closeups of Fenner are especially meaningful; we rarely see his eyes and often half of his face is covered in darkness. Given that Fenner has a vital secret to share about his role in this mission, this sense of mystery is a perfect visual metaphor.

Huston co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Viertel, who adapted the novel Rough Sketch by Robert Sylvester. The dialogue is smart and efficient as much of it is expository, as we learn of the various plans suggested by both Fenner's team as well as by Ariete. However, there are a few speeches in which the revolutionaries speak of heroism in the face of oppression that are a bit overwritten. Toward the end, one of the men who has been digging the tunnel says "It seems as we were the only six people alive," a passage that clearly draws attention to itself. Thankfully, lines such as this are kept to a minimum.

Huston delivered a heartfelt film with We Were Strangers that paralleled his world view of resisting fascism and demagoguery. Though it's easy to see why a dark, noirish-film about a fight for freedom in Cuba would not be a box-office success only a few short years after the end of the Second World War - and at the same time the HUAC hearings were beginning in Washington, D.C. - it is a shame that this film has largely been forgotten. While it may not reach quite the brilliance of his best works, such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Fat City (1972) or Wise Blood (1979), this is an excellent work that ranks near the top of his portfolio, one that argues that all of us, no matter what side we are on, are flawed to some extent. Our hope is that we recognize those failings and can work toward a common goal for the good of our fellow man.

P.S. There are reports that Lee Harvey Oswald watched this film in the months leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. One can certainly understand why Oswald would be enamored of this project; of course, there is the plot to kill a president but there are also images of pamphlets very similar to the Fair Play for Cuba leaflets that Oswald distributed in the streets of New Orleans just a few months earlier. This certainly makes for an interesting, somewhat eerie footnote to this work.


  1. A big Huston fan, I would love to be able to see this film. My favorite 'unknown' Huston films are The List of Adrian Messenger and Beat the Devil.

  2. "Beat The Devil" is not top-drawer Huston, but it is a lot of fun.

    As for "Adrian Messenger", there's a gimmick that keeps you around to the end, but it's not that great a payoff after all is said and done. The rest of the film is pretty lousy and a big disappointment.

  3. Yeah, We Were Strangers surprised me a lot when I first watched it for my Huston Blogathon two years ago. I had feared the worst, especially since Huston dismisses it in his autobiography as "not a very good picture," but methinks he was underrating it a little. It's one of the better movies about "heroic terrorists," and modern-day movies like Inglourious Basterds owe a lot to it -- though I vastly prefer Huston's treatment of this kind of story to Tarantino's.

    One thing that makes the movie considerable is Jennifer Jones' performance, because she makes for one of the stronger heroines in Huston's filmography. I can't say I was impressed with John Garfield's performance very much, though; he's a good actor (particularly in Gentleman's Agreement), but he seemed miscast here, probably because he doesn't look too comfortable inhabiting the role of an action hero. I don't seem to recall those close-ups of his face you mention here though, so I'll keep a look out for those when the movie airs on TV again.

    I think part of the reason why the movie doesn't quite rank with Huston's best work is because, in retrospect, most of the characters seem a little... distant. The movie is much more efficient as a meditation on ideas about facism & democracy than it is as a window into the lives of these people. I'd say the two characters who made most of an impression on me were the sidekick played by Gilbert Roland, and the villain, Ariete. In fact, I'd venture to say Pedro Armendariz gives the best performance in the movie - he really steals that one scene where he sadly remarks that everybody in his life is afraid of him, including his own mother.

  4. Adam:

    Thanks for the comment. I think Huston underrates this work quite a bit. This is urgent, passionate, intelligent filmmaking.

    I agree that Pedro Armendariz does indeed give the best performance in the film. He is physically intimidating, yet he can be quite suave and his scene with Jones, where he eats crab and drinks rum like water, is a highlight. Jones is good as she underplays the role. I thought Garfield was fine. I don't see him as being miscast in this role, but I could see others in this part.

    Do we get to know the characters here as well as we do in the best Huston works such as "Sierra Madre" or "Fat City"? No, but I can't quite agree with your statement that the characters "seem a little... distant." They are in some ways mysterious to be sure, but that helps the overall message of the film about how everyday citizens come together for this act.