We Were Strangers (1949)

John Garfield was an underutilized and unrealised actor who might just have taken all that socialist stuff far too seriously. He never named anyone, and he was pretty clean when it came to proving things, but HUAC crucified him anyway, and probably drove him to the heart attack that killed him in 1952.

All that said, his performance in this one was less than inspiring: the brooding ideologue, with no sense of humanity or drama. Pedro Armendáriz as the menacing secret police goon Armando Ariete definitely steals the show with his shadow-play at killing everyone and raping heroine China Valdés (Jennifer Jones), all without showing what dictatorships really do. Jones, unfortunately, is just a stereotype, screaming like a little girl and quivering unproductively rather than showing spine and determination.

The film just doesn’t come together and remains a lecturing stage production throughout, despite Huston’s presence. Or maybe because of it. A lot was at stake in 1949, after the Hollywood Ten, and this was one of the reasons the liberals didn’t win.

It could be this was partly homage to Hemingway’s obsession with Cuba, and to all the fast-talking socialist hustlers aiming to trade on their jargon-laden European credentials when socialism was just a fashionable pose. Billy Bragg sure had his model in Montilla, guitar always at the ready to sing ditties about counting the bodies without ever getting his hands dirty.

Exactly what this was supposed to say, at a time when Castro’s rebels were attacking the successful rebels of this film, is a little beyond me. Maybe at somefuture time I will see what was intended and seen all those years ago.

Credits

Columbia Pictures, 106 minutes, black and white.

Directed by John Huston. Written by John Huston, Peter Viertel, from a novel by Robert Sylvester. Cinematography by Russell Metty. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Music by George Antheill.

Featuring Jennifer Jones as China Valdés, John Garfield as John Fenner, Pedro Armendáriz as Armando Ariete, Gilbert Roland as Guillermo Montilla, Ramon Novarro as the Chief, Wally Cassell as Miguel, Tito Renaldo as Manolo Valdés, David Bond as Ramón Sánchez, José Pérez as Toto, Morris Ankrum as Mr Seymour.

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