Talk About a Stranger

Talk About a Stranger

D: David Bradley Bradley (1952); with George Murphy, Nancy Davis, Billy Gray, Kurt Kasznar. Little Bobby Fontaine (Gray) is a kid growing up on a citrus ranch in California. Bobby's dog turns up dead soon after a mysterious stranger named Matlock (Kasznar) moves into the neighboring ranch. The youngster soon presumes that the dog died at the hands of the none-too-friendly man, and begins to gather proof that Matlock also murdered a human being. In his delusion, the kid drains Matlock's fuel oil tank, which all the local growers rely on to supply their smudge pots in case of a freeze. Talk About a Stranger echoes 1949's The Window, a huge hit movie that was also driven from the point of view of a paranoid, suspicious child, and asks the audience to identify with the disturbed kid. The rather unremarkable story paired neophyte director Bradley with cinematographer John Alton in a twist of studio politics. Despite his reputation and the fine work that he did, Alton was considered a maverick by many executives and producers at the time. As recalled in Alton's book Painting With Light, teaming him up with Bradley was intended as punishment for the talented DP. Instead, Alton lent a visual sense to the movie that far supersedes the story and direction. By day, the location-shot orange groves are tidy, bright, and attractive; by night, they are an ominous, expressionistic snarl of shadows and darkness. Alton's atmospheric moods are a direct visual metaphor for the boy's deteriorating emotions, as the film goes from sunny day-for-day shots to an dark, oppressive mise-en-scène for the latter segments. It's a sterling example of the language of film being used to tell a story in ways that outstrip the narrative itself, with shot compositions and camera angles that are nearly worthy of Welles. Director Bradley never quite followed through on the promise of Talk About a Stranger and went on to direct the infamous Madmen of Mandoras (aka They Saved Hitler's Brain) in the Sixties, one of the most notoriously awful films of all time.

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