April 8, 2014
With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.
This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.
Stranger on the Prowl came about because a group of blacklisted artists started a production company to make films overseas. Director Bernard Vorhaus, agent John Weber, and the husband-and-wife writing team of Ben and Norma Barzman formed Riviera Films as their names kept appearing in HUAC testimony. It was the same for Losey, who was wrapping up his last Hollywood feature, The Big Night (1951), which completed retakes in June of 1951. As they were all being red baited in the trades, they knew their opportunities for stateside work were dwindling. So Riviera Films started two Italy-based productions, A Bottle of Milk for Losey, and Finishing School for Vorhaus, both with Barzman scripts. A Bottle of Milk (later changed to Stranger on the Prowl), adapted from a story by French crime fiction author Noël Calef (Elevator to the Gallows), follows an unnamed stranger (Muni) who skulks around a port city trying to sell his rusted out gun. After committing a crime out of severe hunger, he is chased through the city’s honeycomb of slum housing, befriending a poor boy who is bringing a stolen bottle of milk home to his mother. The scenario has the raw sentimentality of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and Losey mimics the street-shooting style of that neorealist classic. To aid him was the cinematographer Henri Alekan, who shot Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Roman Holiday and Wings of Desire. Though he preferred grand expressionistic effects (his mentor was Eugen Shüfftan, the creator of Metropolis’ special effects), he was also adept at more “realist” styles, as evidenced by his work in Rene Clement’s La Bataille du Rail, in which railway workers re-enacted their roles in the French Resistance during WWII.
Alekan did not speak English, so the camera operator had to translate Losey’s instructions, but both valued their time working together. In the historical survey Hollywood Exiles in Europe (the main source for this article), author Rebecca Prime quotes Losey calling Alekan “a great gift”, while Alekan described their collaboration as “total and unreserved”. Their camera nimbly navigates the narrow streets and alleys of the Stranger and the boy’s elaborate escape, shot mostly at Tirennia Studios, outside Pisa. Using a mix of handheld and tracking shots, the film is more stylized, less immediate than its neorealist model, especially in the dramatic finale, a chiaroscuro suspense sequence shot on the slum roofs. Though the images impress a sense of alienated isolation, the sound is muddy and marred by poor dubbing of the local actors’ dialogue. For many scenes the boy is unintelligible. The audio was one of the casualties of the patchwork funding of the feature. The money initially came from Andrea Forzano, whose family owned the studio in Pisa, but when his cash ran out, they tapped an Italian-American businessman named Albert Salvatore. As Prime writes, both producers had ties to Mussolini, making Stranger On the Prowl a half-fascist, half-Communist film. Riviera Films had so much trouble raising money many of them got work dubbing Italian films into English to make extra cash.
Though shot on the streets, nothing feels off the cuff. It is a highly composed, artificial kind of neorealism, unaided by the presence of former Hollywood fixture Paul Muni. Though no longer a star, Muni was still a name, at least enough to get the film financed. Muni was happy for the work, but reportedly terrified of being associated with Communists, according to Losey. His terror translates to the screen, in which the already frog-faced actor uglies himself up more, skulking around corners with oily hair, deep pockets under his eyes, and a wardrobe seemingly carved out of a potato bag. He is haunted and hunted by the whole town, a seemingly stateless specter shadowing Europe. It’s a moody metaphor for Losey’s in-between status at that point, a freshly blacklisted artist with no visible means of support outside of the US.
If he had harbored any hopes about returning home, it is not exhibited in the human wreckage of Muni’s exiled loner. Losey’s exile status may have been cemented by a two page spread afforded him by the Italian Communist newspaper L’Unita. Prime reported that soon after the article was published, HUAC announced that Losey was one of the people still unserved with a subpoena to appear before the committee. United Artists had distribution rights to the film in the U.S., but could no longer release the film with all of its Communist associations. The AFL Film Council had already submitted to HUAC a petition to ban films made overseas by Communists of fellow travelers. So UA’s Arthur Krim changed the names of the crew to those of the film’s Italian backers. So Joseph Losey and Ben Barzman became “Andrea Forzano”, while Henri Alekan turned into “Antonio Fiore”. Losey was being erased from U.S. screens, his fate as an exile sealed, just like the film’s wandering Stranger.