Directed by Stanley Donen; Written by Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt
In a time of cookie-cutter narratives with predictable storylines and overblown stakes, Not As A Stranger feels like an ancient antidote; a film starring A-list actors in a story concerned with one person’s inner life, the consequences for those around him and dedicated runtime to slowly peel away at its characters.
It stars Robert Mitchum, old Hollywood icon known for playing tough indomitable men in a slew of film noirs, and Not As A Stranger draws on that inner iron and subverts it, casting him as Lucas Marsh, doctor-in-training whose laser-focused crusade to tack on MD to his name sees him turn on family and friends if they dare come between him and his ambition, and use others for that same gain. A stellar student, and perhaps a stellar doctor-to-be, his flaws as a person could prove disastrous, both at home and at work.
It feels clever that ambition should be to become a general practitioner, a professional field that ultimately treats an ill person like a malfunctioning car with a deductible solution rather than a person with acute feelings, a living and breathing thing. To take it further, and impose that world view on how a person deals with their friends and family, is a malicious vibe.
Not As A Stranger does feature the world’s oldest med students in the shapes of Mitchum and Frank Sinatra, who at the time of filming were 38 and 40, respectively. As such, it does require you to initially suspend disbelief, and the disconnect is particularly jarring in the case of Sinatra, whose role as the happy-go-lucky part of the coupling must engage in frat boy antics and generally take on a youthful air.
Still, I get it, the dilemma in the casting is obvious. A film about a man’s zealous pursuit of his ambition, Not As A Stranger needs someone who can exude an indomitable air and overconfident stubbornness, and you know what, the furrowed brow and sunken eyes of an older man is great visual shorthand for that attitude, so the idea of a 20-something in that role does seem laughable. The closest thing might be Andrew Garfield, to use a modern example, whose heavy straight brow that frames dark eyes do lend him an air of myopic obsession, but even then, you’d feel as if it were two kids in a trench coat pretending to pass for a man.
Modern viewers might also find it unwieldy, as Not As A Stranger snakes around for a good portion of its runtime before it finally reveals its purpose. Even then, it features plot lines that don’t quite satisfy, like a possible affair between Lucas and a temptress played by Gloria Grahame. How she and Mitchum fail to produce any real spark is a mystery.
Radiant in tragic glory, however, is Olivia de Havilland as Kristina Hedvigson, an operating room nurse who mistakenly throws her affections at the loveless heart of Lucas Marsh. Thankfully, she’s not just a woman to be pitied, a sob story of someone wronged, as Havilland’s spine as an actress refuses it; She’s not ruined by the mistake of who she loves, but we as an audience feel this woman’s being wasted.
Characters like this are what Not As A Stranger offers, and they’re rare to find in our current cinematic landscape. Real, whole, adult characters whose idiosyncrasies, redemptions and evolutions are satisfying and enriching to watch because they’re much more relatable in their immediacy and scale. Then, with a story devoted to dissecting their complicated minds and hearts, we get to enjoy them in full. That’s a rarity nowadays, and Not As A Stranger can be enjoyed as such – a contained, evocative drama with strong characters, recognizable stakes and accompanying emotions.