At first glance, the Monogram Pictures’ 1944 release When Strangers Marry (originally titled Betrayed) seems a film typical of the later WWII era: low-budget, brief, incorporating film noir codes, a cast of mainly unknown or formerly supporting actors, and a crime thriller plot involving a naïve woman and a mysterious man. However, in retrospect, it is distinguished by two things: its director, William Castle, who would go on to become a famous producer/director of B-movie horror classics such as ‘House on Haunted Hill’; and it featured the first lead role for Robert Mitchum, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
One can imagine its first audience were only vaguely aware of Mitchum, most of whose roles to this point were uncredited, or were small supporting, character parts. On the other hand, today’s cinephile will watch this particular film solely for the presence of Mitchum, or that of Castle behind the camera. By doing so, the spectator will look for traces of Mitchum’s persona that would be solidified in later films such as The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. For the same reason that Revenge of the Creature (Jack Arnold, 1955) is known for Clint Eastwood’s first screen role, so When Strangers Marry is the first time Mitchum’s particularly brand of evil makes an appearance.
In a profile in Film Comment from 1992, Harlan Kennedy calls Mitchum’s on-screen persona ‘idle evil’; neither covertly manipulative nor overtly sinister, Mitchum’s bad guys make their presence known by almost blending into the background, their devilish natures hidden by an easy charm and seeming disinterest in the activity around them, only striking when the protagonist least expects it. Hence, Kennedy compares Mitchum to the devil, making the world believe he doesn’t really exist, until he needs to.
Watching When Strangers Marry today evokes the typical cinephile’s fantasy of finding the birth of such a distinct persona in an otherwise random and almost forgotten film. Just as with Eastwood, cinephiles want to believe that actors have a persona at the ready, and will find a way to bring it to the surface in any and all roles, even the smallest ones. Cinephiles want to believe that actors are in some ways fully formed as soon as they graduate from their acting training, or when they begin their careers: they have an idea of the kind of roles they want to play, and even if they must play something else, they will find a way to make their persona come through. Stars are not born, therefore: they simply appear.
Mitchum was not a trained actor, furthering the myth of the Hollywood dream, someone picked off the street and finding fame, as someone with natural talent just waiting to be discovered. And one cannot deny the additional fantasy, that the filmmaker who discovered and set Mitchum on the path of his persona, Castle, would himself create his own persona (one of Castle’s signatures was making film spectatorship more interactive, with the introduction of special effects in the cinema space, such as skeletons floating over the audience, and buzzers underneath the seats). This is how legends are born, and their legacies becomes myths.
Right from the beginning of the film, the cinephile is on the hunt for Mitchum. The opening scene features a tall man only visible from behind. The audience of the day would not know who that might be, except that it is likely either Mitchum or his co-star Dean Jagger, given that they are the two most prominent names on the bill. Today’s audience would automatically want to believe that it was Mitchum. For the same reason that we all wait for the appearance of Orson Welles in The Third Man, the contemporary spectator waits for the arrival of Mitchum, and possibly will assume from the start that his character will be the antagonist. While this does turn out to be the case in When Strangers Marry, he and Jagger could easily have switched their roles, since it isn’t known until the very end which one of the them is the murderer. In fact, the main character Millie (played by Kim Hunter) has come to New York looking for her husband, a man she has married after knowing him for only a few days. Again, the expectation is that this will be Mitchum, not only because of his top billing, but for contemporary spectators, his eventually fame.
When Mitchum does appear, today’s spectator could be surprised that, in fact, his screen time is more that of a supporting character than the lead. So why did he receive top billing, when at the time, he was still relatively unknown? Was he more known than Jagger or Hunter? Did the studio feel they needed a man’s name at the top, even though Millie is the main character, appearing in almost every scene? Or did Castle anticipate Mitchum’s rising star? It would be another three years before the release of Out of the Past, the film that is generally said to be the one that launched Mitchum’s stardom. But, as Kennedy points out, it was on the strength of When Strangers Marry that RKO (the studio that produced Out of the Past) offered Mitchum a contract. So perhaps Castle was right, and once again, the Hollywood dream becomes a seductive possibility.
Studio-era Hollywood remains a fascinating chapter in the story of film, one in which movies were churned out like cars, assembled along with almost identical parts, and frequently almost-identical actors. Cinephiles look for those actors who stood the test of time, who survived this era and carved a niche for themselves, either by playing similar characters (such as Humphrey Bogart as the cynical detective, or Barbara Stanwyck as the ruthless femme fatale), or by making their on-screen persona their off-screen identity. Today’s spectator, watching When Strangers Marry, can only see Mitchum; we wait for him to return to the screen, and wait for his idle evil to become active.
Shelagh Rowan-Legg & Simon Laperrière