Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (1952). Directed by Jean Negulesco. NOTE: This review includes important plot details so you may want to wait until after you've seen the movie to read it.

Now this is an odd one. The premise is workable: A lawyer (Gary Merrill) becomes friends with three other passengers on a plane that crashes. These three people are among the victims, and Merrill pays a call on their relatives and helps them resolve some conflicts. Nunnally Johnson's script -- which goes all over the lot -- may have looked good on paper, but the finished product is a mite ungainly and decidedly uneven. Some of the flashbacks to the earlier lives of the passengers occur after they've been killed, and some of these run on and on and on. There's something disjointed about the entire movie. The shame of it is that there are lovely and trenchant moments in the film, parts of which are quite moving. Merrill is workmanlike, stoic, but generally effective in a modest sense, low-key but much too inexpressive. Shelley Winters scores as a failed show biz hopeful who's winging her way back to hubby, who -- unbeknownst to her -- has filed for divorce. Michael Rennie offers one of his better performances as an alcoholic doctor who has decided to fess up about his role in a deadly drunk driving accident five years earlier. Keenan Wynn is as fine as ever as a gregarious jokester who is married to Bette Davis, who is much too artificial, perfunctory and grand lady-ish as the wife, but who has a solid moment recalling how much Wynn forgave and loved her. Evelyn Varden offers a dead-on portrait of a harridan mother-in-law to Winters, and Beatrice Straight turns in perhaps the best supporting performance as Rennie's grieving wife. Helen Westcott and Warren Stevens also do good work as, respectively, Merrill's once-unfaithful but still loving spouse, and Davis' lover, who leaves her flat after she becomes ill. Ted Donaldson is also good as Rennie's troubled son. Jean Negulesco's direction is smooth and both the drunk driving and plane crash scenes are powerful and expertly handled without being too grisly. Franz Waxman's opening theme music is also memorable. But the movie suffers from a surfeit of logic, such as Merrill getting hardly a scratch on him (comparatively) when most of his fellow passengers have been killed. The movie begins very well but wears out its welcome before too long.

Verdict: Not so great despite memorable moments. **1/2.

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