“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door
William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.
Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.
The film opens with a close-up of a bank window getting smashed. Clay Anderson and his gang knock over the establishment, and instead of a clean getaway, try to burn the whole town down, dragging a flaming tumbleweed behind them. During his escape Clay’s horse twists an ankle. He wanders onto Hollis Jarret’s farm, greeted by a church under construction, Jarret’s young second wife Peg slicing watermelon, and freckle-faced kid Dodie gabbing nonstop about horses. It is Americana kitsch, which soon proves to be nothing more than a veneer which Clay begins to pick away at. Pretending to be a friendly traveler, Peg agrees to house him in their barn until his horse gets well. Clay begins needling her, asking if she was the preacher’s daughter, and upon finding her true role, advances upon her with a leer. He insists that she doesn’t belong on this isolated spread, alone, rotting on the vine. You can see the flickerings of doubt on Patricia Medina’s face. She is revolted by Clay’s aggression, but the truth of his statements are as plain as day. She is too young, Hollis is too old. She is not a devout believer, while Hollis practices a severe, self-abnegating Christianity. Clay’s poison begins its work. The Anderson character was originally intended to be Jesse James, but was changed, according to Richard Maurice Hurst in Republic Studios, due to “legal complications”. Skip Homeier was a child actor (billed as “Skippy”), and he still looks like he is outgrowing his adolescence here, now a gawky 26-year-old trying to appear menacing.
It is this youthfulness that attracts Hollis. When the preacher returns home from a trip to town and sees Clay out by the barn, he immediately knows this is a lost soul from the robbery. Instead of turning him in or urging Clay to leave, he insists that he stay. Hollis has taken a passage from St. Luke’s to heart: “There shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance.” Hollis accepts Clay’s appearance as a challenge from God – to lead this lost lamb back to the flock, regardless of the consequences. The longer Clay stays, the more aggressive his pursuit of Peg becomes, and his paranoia at being caught has him pulling his pistol on every random visitor. It is as if Hollis has invited Death himself into his home. Peg becomes disgusted with all of them – at Clay’s boorishness and Hollis’ self-destructiveness, pushing herself towards the edges of the frame. But the men proceed onward to the inevitable violent endpoint.
Clay deflects all of Hollis’ attempts at preaching, treating his elder with contemptuous scorn. After another entreaty to turn to Christ, Clay ripostes, “”For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” Hollis, unperturbed, sees this as instruction. He purchases an unruly wild horse from a reluctant Slim Pickens, and believes that if this horse can be broken, so can Clay. Hollis names the horse “Lucifer” (played by Rex the Wonder Horse), and the beast lives up to the appellation. Dodie sneaks into the stable in an attempt to calm Lucifer himself, but instead the animal goes wild, bucking and attacking with the single-minded bloodthirstiness of a slasher movie monster. When Dodie slides underneath a cart, Lucifer goes down on his knees and tries to attack him with his teeth. It is the most terrifying equine performance in cinema history. Witney recalls the performance in a video from the 1994 Knoxville Film Festival:
“Rex, King of the Wild Horses. This was one of the most animated, wildest horse you’ve ever seen. He had come out of a boys’ school in Flagstaff, Arizona. The trainer discovered that this horse would charge him when he cracked a whip. And I mean charge him. And you got out of the way. They were crying on the set, “Rex is loose!” I saw him chase a little actor under a car, get down on his knees and try to get to him with his teeth [laughter]. It wasn’t funny. Being a horseman myself I really appreciated this horse. There will never be another horse with the animation of this big bay, a thoroughbred Morgan horse, strangely enough.
Witney spent many of his early years at Fort Sam Houston with his uncle, which is where he learned to ride and jump horses, a passion and a skill he would carry with him the rest of his life. This led him to become friends with many of the stunt riders he worked with over the years, including the legendary Yakima Canutt. But for Witney, “the finest horseman ever to step on a horse bar none” was Joe Yrigoyen, who came up making pennies in Mascot Pictures serials, stayed on when the studio merged into Republic Pictures, and continued taking celluloid tumbles into the late 1970s, in Blazing Saddles and The Prisoner of Zenda. He was the stuntman for Clay Anderson in Stranger at my Door, given the task of calming down Rex during the freak-out sequence. In an effort to distract the horse from Dodie, Clay leaps onto Rex’s neck and wrestles him to the ground. It is a supremely athletic and dangerous feat, as Rex swings Joe around on his neck like a reverse rodeo rider.
The white-knuckle sequence proves Clay’s humanity, as he leaps in to protect Dodie. So Hollis’ plan is a success, though only after Dodie and Peg were almost stomped to death. For Peg this proves to be the end of her last frayed nerve. With the entirety of the film taking place on the Jarret farm set, there are a limited number of setups that Witney can use to generate tension. So instead of repeating another image of the stable, he flicks off the studio lights. While the rest of the family is asleep, Peg snags a shotgun and stalks towards the stable. She levels the sights onto Lucifer, ready to blast it into Kingdom Come, and her relationship with Hollis along with it. Poised there in low light, the gun raised, and the industrial fans tousling her hair, she is the closest thing the film has to an action hero. But she doesn’t have the nerve to take a life, and there is a storm brewing. The local sheriff stumbles into view, and the final shootout occurs in flames, the farm now an adjunct of hell. In the light of day the family is reconstituted, and Clay has discovered a measure of peace. But the question of whether all of the blood and thunder has been worth it is a question between Hollis and his God.
For a cheap programmer, the film was enthusiastically received, with Variety calling it an “exceptionally well-done family trade offering”, and The Hollywood Reporter praising it as containing “a theme that lifts it well out of the ordinary class and into a niche where it deserves to be considered with very special interest.” Witney always remembered it fondly, probably because of the positive critical response, not something he was used to in that period in his career. Though he always had a high reputation among serial aficionados and Western obsessives, his reputation never grew beyond these cliques. His most famous fan is Quentin Tarantino, who waxed poetic about him in a 2000 New York Times article (I made my much lower profile case at Moving Image Source a few years back). Stranger at my Door is the first of Witney’s films to be released on Blu-ray, and it might be the last. But even if he never garners a retrospective or a door-stopping biography, his influence reverberates whenever a horse bucks a rider or a punch is thrown on screen.