TALK ABOUT A STRANGER (director/writer: David Bradley; screenwriters: Margaret Fitts/from the short story”The Enemy” by Charlotte Armstrong; cinematographer: John Alton; editor: Newell P. Kimlin; music: David Buttolph; cast: George Murphy (Robert Fontaine, Sr.), Nancy Davis (Marge Fontaine), Billy Gray (Robert Fontaine, Jr.), Lewis Stone (Mr. Wardlaw), Kurt Kasznar (Matlock), Anna Glomb (Camille), Katherine Warren ( Dorothy), Stanley Andrews (Mr. Wetzell); Runtime: 65; MGM; 1952)
“A surprisingly effective cautionary fable.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Warning: spoilers throughout.
An unusual kidpic melodrama that is set in a small farming town of Southern California. The gist of the story is about gossip that unjustly arouses suspicion on an unfriendly stranger who just moved into town and is suspected of poisoning a young boy’s dog. Unfortunately there’s not much of a payoff, but the story is appealing and holds one’s interest throughout.
Bobby Fontaine (Billy Gray) is playing spooky games with his friends in a neighboring abandoned house when he’s surprised to see a strange man. When he tells his citrus farmer father (George Murphy) they go over there thinking it is Dr. Paul Mahler, someone they have never seen, returning from the city to live in the rundown farmhouse he bought a few years ago. But the unfriendly stranger tells them his name is Matlock (Kurt Kasznar) and he bought the house from Mahler.
Mr. Fontaine is busy trying to survive a January freeze that could kill his crops, while Bobby’s mother Marge (Nancy Davis) is pregnant and her workload has been reduced. Bobby works as newspaper delivery boy, and while riding around town on his bike a small dog becomes attached to him. Bobby adopts the dog and names him Boy. When his dog is found poisoned in Matlock’s yard, the boy accuses Matlock. When his father won’t help he goes to the newspaper editor, Mr. Wardlaw (Lewis Stone), and the kindly grandfather figure advises him to get proof before he accuses someone.
Bobby hitchhikes to the town of San Sala which is 47 miles away and is where Dr. Mahler permanently resides, but he finds the doctor’s house abandoned. An older boy tells him that the doctor was murdered back in October, but his body hasn’t been found. Bobby now believes Matlock might have murdered both his dog and Dr. Mahler.
During a freezing night when all the local citrus farmers are burning heaters on their crops to stop the freeze, Bobby is so resentful of Matlock that he unplugs his oil tank. This was the emergency oil supply his father and the other farmers counted on using because they were all running out of fuel and Matlock had no need of it because he was not farming.
The poisoned dog mystery is solved when Mr. Wetzell tells the editor he put out poisoned meat to kill the coyotes. Also, Dorothy appears. Matlock confesses that’s his wife and he’s really Dr. Mahler. He further tells Bobby’s family that he became depressed several months ago when he operated on his son and he died on the operating table. As a gesture of good will, he gives Bobby a puppy. And to bring closure to the story, the farmers are relieved when a shipment of oil arrives in the nick of time to save their crops.
The film takes on its film noir features when the lonely boy, who is the central character and through whose eyes we view the film, becomes so obsessed with his loss he can’t listen to reason and becomes destructive. At that point the outside location shots contrast the dark cold night with the prior sunny daytime, as Bobby’s paranoid behavior gets the better of him. It makes for a surprisingly effective cautionary fable. A more modern and outspoken version of this theme might be seen in David Lynch’ Blue Velvet.
REVIEWED ON 4/5/2002 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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