Olivia de Havilland has been in some of the most iconic films of all time, from Gone With The Wind, to The Snake Pit and The Heiress. But in 1955 she starred in a film that despite having an almost all star cast, including Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Broderick Crawford, Charles Bickford and Gloria Grahame, and being based on a bestselling novel, is now largely forgotten.
The film made $8 million dollars at the box office, and was the highest grossing film of the year for United Artists. And it also had a good critical reception with Frank Sinatra being nominated for a BAFTA and Charles Bickford winning the 1955 National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Not As A Stranger follows the progress of impoverished medical student, Lucas Marsh (played by Robert Mitchum), whose future as a doctor is threatened by the death of his mother, and his drunken father (Lon Chaney Jr makes a brief appearance in this role), stealing the money his mother left to him for his studies. Lucas decides to marry older nurse Kristina Hendvigson (played by Olivia de Havilland) so that she can financially support him and earn his degree. Despite knowing that Kristina loves him, he shows little regard for her feelings, and does not think she is on his level intellectually, even though she is an incredibly gifted nurse, and helps him earn his degree through not only financial support, but by helping him study.
It is only when Lucas is forced to move to a relatively rural community to do his residency with wise Dr Runkleman, after having insulted one of the most influential doctors at the university hospital; that he slowly begins to learn how to be more human, and how to see his patients and other doctors as humans, capable of making mistakes. But by the time this happens, it may be too late, and he might have lost Kristina forever due to his pride, and also betraying her with the sultry Widow Lang (played by Gloria Grahame).
This film is slow. The plot is in no hurry to unfurl, and this is probably why the film is over two hours long. I would normally complain about this bitterly. Classic films have spoilt me because they usually pack a huge amount of plot in under or just at, 90 minutes. But Not As A Stranger uses its longer running time to develop characters so that you understand their motivations, and also to introduce you to the world of medical studies, and small town medicine, in a believable and careful way. Along with And Now Tomorrow, starring Alan Ladd and Loretta Young, this has become my new favourite medical drama.
I really like how the film isn’t like modern medical dramas (yeah Greys Anatomy, I’m looking at you), which are full of epiphanies that magically lead doctors to heal their patients who have rare diseases, or huge amounts of sex in lifts and changing rooms. This film shows how medical students have to be exceptional, and that money plays a huge part in the medical profession. Lucas’ extreme piety and hatred of weakness in others, mostly due to his father’s myriad of failings, leads him to declare that one of his fellow medical students (played by Lee Marvin!) who says that he only wants to be a doctor to earn a lot of money, makes him want to vomit because of his greed. This is also what leads him to insult fellow doctors who he feels are either guilty of avarice, or who are reluctant to try new medical techniques. He sees this persistence in sticking to old fashioned medical practices as being a sign of stupidity and laziness.
In one scene he accuses his best friend, Alfred (played by Frank Sinatra), who comes from a wealthy family, of being unworthy of being a doctor because he makes a potentially life threatening mistake, by removing a mole from a patient’s face when it could be cancerous. Instead of recognising that his friend is only human and capable of making errors like any other person, he screams at him in front of the nurses and other doctors. Later on, Lucas and Alfred make up, but his friend becomes aware that Lucas is incredibly arrogant and largely indifferent to other people’s feelings.
Kristina also tells him that he should be aware of other people’s failings, especially fellow doctors who whilst trying to make the best judgements, are not super heroes. Lucas accuses her of being too stupid to understand that doctors should be above reproach, and this shows the beginning of the fracturing of their marital relationship.
This film is incredibly realistic in how it shows how doctors have to function under often not ideal circumstances. And experience in life often leads to maturation and the recognition of human beings as imperfect beings. Two of my absolute favourite parts in the film are a montage in which the daily function of Lucas and Dr Runkleman as country doctors is shown, and that they have to treat a variety of medical disorders and accidents. These include people who are suffering from terminal illnesses (of their own making due to hard living), a boy who swallowed a safety pin and has to have surgery to have it removed, and a young woman who believes herself to be ill and who Runkleman treats with placebo tablets. All of these sequences are incredibly well filmed by Stanley Kramer, who made his directorial debut with Not As A Stranger. The scene in which the little boy has the safety pin removed from his oesophagus made me clutch my throat with how believable it was.
My second favourite part is when Lucas diagnoses an older patient with typhoid, and despite the objections of the largely incompetent head of the hospital, isolates and treats the patient, which saves the old man’s life. Lucas calls on Kristina to help him treat the patient, proving that despite his constant accusations of her not being on his level in terms of medical abilities, she actually is, and that subconsciously he recognises this, but will not acknowledge it because of his arrogance and self belief. I really love how despite this scene not being a surgery or a mass disaster in the hospital, or any of those usually utilised dramatic set pieces in medical films; it is still very tense and really has you wondering what the outcome will be.
The end of the film is really hard-hitting. Two events lead Lucas to realise that not only is he not the golden boy that he believed himself to be, and that he needs to learn humility because he is in fact capable of making mistakes; but also that he should have valued Kristina for her love and loyalty all along. Alfred informs him that Kristina is pregnant and that she has not told him because not only has he grown increasingly indifferent to her, but that everyone knows he is having an affair with the femme fatale Widow Lang. When Lucas tries to make amends, Kristina finally tells him that she wants him out of her life. Lucas is heartbroken, but too proud to admit that he needs Kristina. It takes the second event to make him realise that Kristina, Alfred and Runkelman were right all along in their advisement that a certain tolerance for human frailty is needed. Lucas finally returns to Kristina and begs for her forgiveness and help, and the film ends on a hopeful note.
Stanley Kramer’s direction is rock solid, and is probably one of the most impressive directorial debuts I’ve seen. His style in this film actually reminds me somewhat of Henry Hathaway’s, with its stripped back technique that is all about showcasing the actors’ performances and highlighting the script in all of his dramatic glory. The manner in which he directs the surgical scenes are wonderful, and really make you feel as if you are present in the operating theatre. I also love how he realises the montage I mentioned earlier, using a revolving set with different doors which different patients come through and speak to Mitchum and Bickford, who are only shown from behind. He manages to balance the personal and medical aspects of the story so well that they flow seamlessly from one to the other, and don’t feel separated at all, which is impressive, and something I haven’t seen in many medical dramas, which tend to focus on one aspect over another.
The performances of the entire cast are brilliant. Lon Chaney Jr makes a brief appearance as Lucas’ dipsomaniac father, and manages to imbue his small part with so much emotion. Despite being only nine years older that Mitchum, he’s very believable as his haggard father.
Frank Sinatra, who had rightly won an Oscar for his performance in From Here To Eternity two years before, gives another exceptional performance as Alfred. Although he also isn’t given an extensive amount of screen time, he manages to convey a lot about his character. He also provides a necessary foil to Lucas’s character, with his easy going nature and his propensity to make jokes. It’s also clear that he is in love with Kristina and that they should actually be together, but because Alfred is a good person, he doesn’t even attempt anything inappropriate with her. Sinatra and Mitchum have very good chemistry, as do he and Olivia.
Broderick Crawford also has a smaller supporting role, but his turn as an impassioned doctor and lecturer is very memorable. He manages to imbue his performance with the right amount of grit and sympathy, and makes it clear that despite being given little backstory and screen time, that his character has gone through a lot and is an excellent mentor. In one scene he lambastes Alfred and the other students for depending on the fact that they do not need to know all of the coursework in order to pass. He recites an entry in a medical dictionary almost verbatim, and then explains that doctors hold peoples’ lives in their hands, and therefore owe it to them to not only not seventy percent. It’s a very powerful scene in a movie filled with them.
Charles Bickford, who I watched recently in the also brilliant Johnny Belinda, is once again exceptional, and definitely deserved his National Review Award. He is so natural and believable as the old country doctor who is actually a really gifted physician who cares about his patients, despite their reluctance to pay and to listen to his advice and recommendations. He and Mitchum also have wonderful chemistry, and their scenes together are actually my favourite of the film. I especially like it when he’s shown in the beginning being a mentor to Lucas, before giving him more freedom as a doctor and having faith in him to become more independent as his successor in the town.
Robert Mitchum plays one of the most intolerable characters I have ever seen him as, probably only matched by his manic and chilling turns in Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. This is a different role for him, though. He isn’t the cool, calm character of his film noirs or the brave cowboy of his later westerns. He’s a passionate, ambitious young medical student and eventually, doctor, and he makes the part entirely believable, especially in the scenes where he has to treat patients.
I never imagined him as a doctor before, but I would have loved to see him play one again. I think what makes him particularly believable is the fact that, as usual, he doesn’t have to work at the role. He becomes Lucas, especially in the scenes where he is shown as becoming an increasingly gifted doctor. He also realises the completely unlikable aspects of Lucas’ character, and isn’t afraid of you hating him, which you actually do for much of the film, especially in the parts where he is cruel to and betrays Kristina. But he also manages to show redeemable aspects of the character which the script doesn’t really lend itself to, and this makes Mitchum’s performance even more impressive.
Last, but absolutely not least, Olivia de Havilland’s performance is, as I have come to expect, absolutely brilliant. Her Swedish accent is so well done, never veering into being comical or excessive. Her beautiful eyes show so much emotion during the film, showing the shifting feelings and realisations that Kristina experiences, without having to always speak to other characters or voice her thoughts. The moment you see her, you remember her and realise that her character is going to be vital to the story.
During the scenes in which she is fulfilling her character’s function as a nurse, she is so believable. She never looks awkward or out of place, and during the scenes where Kristina tutors Lucas in different surgical instruments and suturing techniques, she manages to be both wise and funny. I love it when she tells Lucas after he’s finished stitching a piece of fabric on a bedpost to recreate a part of a patient’s body, that “The embroidery was beautiful, but the patient died”, because he took too long. Her line delivery is so hilariously dry and she tilts her head in a way that really conveys a wordless “tsk tsk”.
I don’t know how many actresses could have made this role so memorable and heartfelt. Mitchum is clearly the star of this film, getting the most screen time and the majority of the dramatic consideration, but Olivia takes a part that could have been kind of thankless and makes it so powerful. Like in The Snake Pit, her performance is bursting with emotion but also subtlety.
She reconciles these seemingly opposite things and melds them in her portrayal of a woman who is bright and so worthwhile, but who is almost entirely unappreciated by the man she loves. Kristina doesn’t become a martyr or sob sister through Olivia’s realisation, but a feisty character who you root for the entire film. At the end, when she finally has enough of Lucas’ hurtful behaviour, Olivia fills up the screen, pretty much stealing the scene right from under Mitchum; and she does this whilst sitting for the majority of the scene, when she’s already far more physically slight than her leading man.
I don’t really understand why she wasn’t nominated for an award for this film, but I think that about most of the films that she was in and almost all of the performances that she gave. Plus she looks so beautiful. Her hair is dyed platinum blonde because she’s supposed to be Swedish, and she carries it off so well. It shows up her incredible eyes and clear, soft complexion. Although she looks wonderful in everything, this is definitely one of my favourite looks that she has in a film. The movie ends with a shot of her face over Mitchum’s shoulder as they embrace and “The End” appears on the screen, and it’s wonderful. Her large eyes stay with you, and you know that Kristina has finally achieved her goal: of humanising the man she loves and being needed by him.
This is my contribution for the lovely Charity’s The Olivia de Havilland Blogathon for the wonderful actress’ 104th birthday! Please visit her blog to read all of the amazing entries honouring this legend of the silver screen.