Wednesday, September 28, 2011

STRANGE INTRUDER (1956) - finally, a movie about a child murderer who's a valiant hero and all around nice guy

While Abigail Folger was being stabbed by Patricia Krenwinkel (of the Manson family, of course), she pleaded for whatever life she had left by saying “I’m already dead.” While seemingly illogical on its face, this plea sort of makes sense once you put yourself in Abigail’s blood soaked shoes. She’s desperately trying to convince her attacker to stop, probably realizing that Krenwinkel’s goal is murder itself, rather than robbery. In a sense, she was mentally playing possum, trying to convince Krenwinkel that her goal had already been accomplished. Folger’s plea is one of the creepiest things ever spoken by my standards, with its creepy combination of utter hopelessness and illogical horror.

So, if someone is talking to you as they’re dying, you might not want to take what they say literally, but instead, in the spirit it was intended. This is especially true if the dying is a soldier that was captured, tortured, and denied food and water. This kind of physical exhausation and mental stress does not lend itself to clear thinking. So, it is unfortunate that fellow captured soldier Paul takes Adrian’s last words not only quite literally, despite the aforementioned circumstances, but he also takes them very much to heart. Adrian asks Paul to promise to murder his two children, since his wife had an affair, and he presumes that this guy will end up becoming their new father, or that they’ll end up fatherless. Better his children kick their little buckets than suffer through a life without good old dad. You might say that Adrian is a scumbag parent with an extremely high opinion of himself, but let's look at the circumstances. Adrian recently received a letter from his wife revealing that she cheated on him, and he is horrified when he ponders the thought his children learning of his death. This leads to a delusional and illogical choice of words under extreme duress that is, unfortunately, taken as gospel.

In fairness, Paul has also been stuck in a Korean torture camp, and is not of sound mind either. However, he is rescued and rightfully ends up in a psychiatric hospital back in the U.S.. He’s treated and released, so you’d assume that he has had plenty of time to reflect on his “promise”, coming to his senses that killing two kids because their father died is pretty batshit crazy (not to mention illegal in most states). However, Paul apparently has an uncanny ability to convey polite, ingratiating sanity, while inside he is a shellshocked shell of a man (that is an empty shell that is shocked from battle) with no life and no future. His only reason for being is his promise to Adrian, and he travels to Adrian’s boyhood home, seemingly hypnotized by his words. Paul is enchanted by this perfect small town and this perfect small life Adrian left behind. Perhaps indicating that he was looking back on his life as he was dying, Adrian reminisced about his childhood home rather than tell Paul about the new house he bought with his wife a few months before going off to war.

Paul walks right into the house while Adrian provides a nostalgic description within Paul’s mind, and Paul co-opts this nostalgia is if it were his own. Quite ironically, these words are guiding Paul to destroy this perfect world. Paul plays Adrian’s favorite songs on piano, the sound wafting through the air like a ghost, luring family members with the sound of Adrian’s spirit. He meets Adrian’s parents and younger sister Gloria Talbott, wearing jeans no less. He makes quite an impression on them with very little effort, especially Gloria, who quickly tells him “we can go swimming tommorrow!”. He’s already managed to get her out of those jeans. You devil you. Adrian’s wife (Ida Lupino) eventually shows up, and not only does she partially adopt Paul as a replacement Adrian (even leaving him to babysit the kids he plans to murder), but also confides in him like he’s a caring friend. She spills the beans about the affair and some resulting complications in hand wringing fashion. His empty face makes her think he’s an understanding listener, and he seems to have no particular horse in the race. Ida is not given a lot to do except to externalize guilt. Even so, she believably convinces that she had the affair because she missed her husband, and this other guy was a momemtarily replacement for Adrian. Also, her husband might’ve been dead at the time for all she knew. At the time, it was a “woman’s place” to wait dutifully at home while her husband was at war, no matter the circumstances, but you’d think she would warrant some sympathy in this situation, especially from herself.

Edmond Purdom (Paul) is by no means a great actor, but he is quite able to convey vacant politeness. However, this character is saddled with far too much for him to handle (or for any actor to handle). He’s outwardly pleasant and sane, but inwardly, he’s a nut under the spell of a dead man’s voice. Also, he’s both villian and hero, eccentric and everyman, charismatic yet empty. A character can’t believably operate within such extremes simultaneously, and Adrian’s family members are often forced to view him in whatever terms service the plot. Also, you’d think one of the family members would get suspicious about him at some point, regardless of how badly they want to fill the void of a departed loved one. Despite a forced main plot engine, forced main character, and a cop out ending, it does achieve a morbidly ironic variation on a film like Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire. In that case, Barbara Stanwyck plays a character who deserts her family to become an actor, but returns after ten years, disgraced and hardly welcomed with open arms, despite good intentions on her part. In Strange Intruder, Paul is a socially accepted stranger welcomed with open arms despite having murderous intentions, coming back home to return to a life that was never his to begin with.

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