Saturday 12 December 2020

Movie Review: A Stranger In My Arms (1959)

A sudsy melodrama, A Stranger In My Arms features enough talent to survive a torrid story of misplaced passion.

Test pilot Major Pike Yarnell (Jeff Chandler) is approached by widow Christina Beasley (June Allyson) with an invitation to attend a memorial service for her deceased husband Donald (Peter Graves). Towards the end of the Korean War, Pike and Donald drifted for days in an ocean survival raft before Donald expired. Now the dead man's domineering mother Virginie (Mary Astor) is intent on building a case for posthumously awarding her son the Medal of Honor, and needs Pike's testimony to support her lobbying.

Pike knows Donald is far from deserving of any medal, and reluctantly travels to the small Georgia town dominated by the Beasleys. He is interested in pursuing a romance with Christina, but also finds himself targeted by the flirty Pat Beasley (Sandra Dee), Donald's younger sister. Virginie and her father-in-law Vance (Charles Coburn) are soon working on Pike to spin the right story, but from the desperate days on the raft Pike knows enough secrets about the family to resist their crass pressure while still trying to win Christina's heart.

An adaptation of the Robert Wilder novel And Ride a Tiger, A Stranger In My Arms is ambitious but also vaguely under-resourced. Filmed in CinemaScope but in black and white, featuring a healthy number of intriguing characters but a less than stellar cast and clocking in at just 88 minutes, the production appears in conflict with itself. Nevertheless director Helmut Kautner conjures up a passable drama centred on a mother in love with herself and the phantom idea of an ideal son, with all those around her acquiescing to her warped reality and afraid to confront her with the truth.

Mary Astor bites into the role of Virginie Beasley with some venom, her manipulative antics a hot pepper amidst all the hot sauce emotions. June Allyson and Jeff Chandler are supposed to be the main characters but both are relatively bland. Sandra Dee delivers the other notable role, Pat not allowing her self-awareness and precocious maturity to stifle a purring sexuality.

Kautner would have had an even shorter film on his hands had the clenched-jawed Pike revealed exactly what happened on the raft the first time he met Christina. Instead the revelations are stretched out in flashback snippets, the running time occupied with stand-ins riding muscular horses in pretty landscapes, until a rather tepid climax in which a key letter is not even read out. A Stranger In My Arms generates heat but does not always quite know what to do with it.

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