John Huston

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Gavin Lambert

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

[We Were Strangers is a] collective study of men in a crisis. (p. 82)

Huston has … conceived his film as a melodrama—which has earned him the disapproval of those who consider that melodrama should be reserved for "unimportant" subjects like The Maltese Falcon, and who feel that it vitiates anything more "serious". Nevertheless, there are many major dramatic and literary works highly seasoned with melodrama…. The flaws in We Were Strangers are in details of the treatment, not imposed by the choice of treatment itself. In some ways it is carefully stylised: in the striking camera-work by Russell Metty with its powerful groupings and broad contrasts; in the dialogue's consistent convention of broken accents and slightly formal, slightly unrealistic quality, most of the time highly effective and once or twice too declamatory (China's "There are no marble vaults for our dead…"). None of these conventions muffles or holds up the drama. Structurally it is a taut, exact, almost flawless piece of work. It lacks depth at times because of Huston's attitude to people; he concentrates his passion on physical tension and details, on exterior climaxes, and the rest he observes and records, excitingly but imperviously. Thus the comradeship of the men, whose theme is so beautifully stated in a brief sequence at night when Guillarmo improvises a calypso on his guitar, is later assumed rather than conveyed—and the effect of their parting, after the plan has failed, loses some of its force. The same limitations of feeling are apparent in his handling of the love-affair, which is never false but remains undeveloped. (pp. 83-4)

We Were Strangers, its own remarkable qualities apart, marks an important point in Huston's work. In the past, he has always concentrated on a group of people with conflicting motives and actions, telling the story through them, never really taking sides with any character; and this has set him apart from other Hollywood directors…. Key Largo is unique for Huston in being a completely empty, synthetic work. It is academically interesting because Huston showed, for the first time, two characters of his own generation professing positive beliefs and some faith in human values: the soldier's widow and her dead husband's army friend, a cynic at first but regenerated at the close. They are as false as the others, but significant perhaps in the light of We Were Strangers, where the group of people is brought about for noble, unselfish reasons, motivated by common beliefs. Fenner already believes in the values to which Frank at the end of Key Largo was supposed to have been converted.

Huston, however, does not identify himself with Fenner, reserves his sympathy—he is too struck with the savage irony of the situation, the place of this desperate mission in the revolution as a whole. He has made a film about heroes, but it is not heroic; as an artist, he appears to appreciate intellectually the necessity of heroism, but to be more personally aware of the effectiveness of human weakness and viciousness; in some ways the portrait of Arliete, the police chief, is the most full-blooded in the picture. While Huston's sympathies are clear enough, he has held them back partially from the characters, and for this reason the personality behind the film remains at last elusive. (p. 85)

Gavin Lambert, "'We Were Strangers'" (reprinted by permission of Gavin Lambert), in Shots in the Dark: A Collection of Reviewers' Opinions of Some of the Leading Films Released between January 1949 and February 1951, edited by Edgar Anstey & others, Allan Wingate (Publishers) Ltd, 1951, pp. 82-5.

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