Talk About a Stranger (1952)
Directed by David Bradley
Produced by Richard Goldstone
Screenplay by Margaret Fitts
Based on the story “The Enemy” by Charlotte Armstrong
Cinematography by John Alton
Edited by Newell P. Kimlin
Music by David Buttolph
Talk About a Stranger is one of the few entries in the sub-category of Kid Noir, alongside films like The Window (1949), Night of the Hunter (1955), and Shadow on the Window (1957). Eddie Muller has a great introduction and outro for this film from a couple of years ago on Noir Alley, so I refer you to that for more on the movie. But for now...
Bud Fontaine and his pals dare each other to visit an old abandoned house late one night. The boys break a window, then discover that the house isn’t abandoned. A strange man surprises the boys, who scatter, but Bud runs home to tell his father Bob (George Murphy) the story. Insisting that Bud apologize to the homeowner, Bob marches his son over to the house to meet the strange man named Matlock (Kurt Kasznar, right), who says he bought the house from the previous owner Dr. Paul Mahler, whom no one has seen for ages. But Matlock isn’t interested in anyone’s apology or company, so he bids them a gruff farewell.
Bud immediately takes a dislike to Matlock, which turns into a raging hatred, especially after Bud’s dog is found poisoned. Although he has no evidence, the most likely suspect in Bud’s mind is Matlock.
Yet Bud’s parents Bob and Marge (Nancy Davis, soon-to-be Nancy Reagan) are Southern California orange growers who depend upon oil to use in their orchard smudge pots to keep the winter frost from destroying their orange crop. And who owns the largest supply of oil in the area? You guessed it: Matlock.
I won’t tell you what happens from here (and I’ve only told you some of the story), but Billy Gray’s performance is one of three elements that makes Talk About a Stranger memorable. Another is the adaptation of the original Charlotte Armstrong story “The Enemy,” which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in May, 1951. Armstrong was one of the best writers of mystery stories and novels of the era, yet is just now beginning to be rediscovered, especially now that classic film fans have sought out her writing after enjoying adaptations of her work in films like The Unsuspected (1947) and Don’t Bother to Knock (1952).
But it is the cinematography of John Alton that brings the film to life. Alton creates a nightmarish world that acts as the perfect playground for Bud’s imagination and paranoia. A child’s point of view is essential for this film to work, and Alton understood exactly how to make that happen. The film (largely due to Alton’s spectacular imagery) also acts as an allegory for the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s while telling a gripping story.
Yet everything is not perfect in this MGM B picture. Bob and Marge Fontaine may be two of the most inept parents in 1950s films (and that's saying something), and perhaps that’s one of the points screenwriter Margaret Fitts is bringing out. (In their defense, Bud can wear down your nerves and your patience, but don’t fault Billy Gray for that.) Also the solving of the mystery isn’t entirely satisfactory, and the ending is too pat. Still, the strengths of Talk About a Stranger far outweigh any negatives you may encounter along the way.
Please watch Eddie Muller’s intro and outro for the film, where you’ll learn more about director David Bradley, Billy Gray, Kurt Kasznar, George Murphy, and future First Lady Nancy Reagan.
Next time: Another film noir from Noir City International