You can always tell a Jean Negulesco picture. His works are usually polished melodramas where the romance is heavily steep in morality, a sermon on celluloid. Some of his works I enjoy for their light diversionary quality (The Pleasure Seekers, for example). However, the majority of his work is just too sticky sweet and boring for me. Phone Call From a Stranger might implie a serious drama or thriller wherein our hero searches for the eponymous stranger who’s called him. Instead, this plays like you’re watching Fatal Attraction only to realize the couple fall in love and one has a fatal disease. This is a downright bizarre movie whose closest cousin is the Will Smith movie, Seven Pounds. I hated that feature, and I can’t conjure much love for this earlier version.
David Trask (Gary Merrill) has left his philandering wife and plans to fly to California. During a layover he meets three people, all coping with problems of their own. When the plane they’re on crashes, David takes to visiting each of the three’s families in order to help restore the stranger’s good names.
This is a vehicle showcasing Merrill, but apparently Hollywood realized why no one wanted to watch him hold a film, so he enlists the help of his uber-famous wife (already past her All About Eve-prime) to play a small role, hence Davis gets an “also starring” credit, billed last. So much of this movie plays like O. Henry’s Full House of which Negulesco directed a segment. Negulesco and the anthology premise aside, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this in my Bette Davis box set despite Davis getting approximately twenty minutes of screentime (she doesn’t show up until an hour and fifteen minutes in to a 95-minute feature). I’ll return to Davis in a second.
Merrill was decent as the stalwart companion to Davis’ Margo Channing in the aforementioned Eve, but it’s easy to suss out why he isn’t remembered as a leading man; there’s nothing to him. Part of this is blamed on the flimsy script by Nunnally Johnson, who gives everyone a deep story but the leading man. Outside of the beginning sequence where we learn David’s wife cheated on him, there’s nothing to the character. He’s angry about it and that’s it. The movie wants to build to a realization, an epiphany David’s hit with as he goes around the country “helping” these characters, but the premise deflates like a balloon. Davis’ disabled Marie finally tells him to call his wife, he does, and when she doesn’t pick up after the first ring he yells at Marie that how dare she not answer. It’s midnight, and they have kids don’t you know! When the wife finally answers he starts interrogating her. Sure, her excuse of a midnight shower is suspect, but did it never occur to him she’d be sleeping? And this is the final sequence, everyone! He accuses his wife of continuing her philandering ways and they live happily ever after.
I wish the inconsistency was limited to our leading man, but everything about this feature is wildly erratic. David’s intentiongoing to each of the three families trying to help them cope is to…tell the families how awesome the people in their lives were? Part of this is logical, like restoring the image of Dr. Robert Fortness (Michael Rennie) who drunkenly killed his friend in a car accident, let the dead man take the rap, only to feel bad and have plans to tell the police the real story once they landed. That sounds ridiculously stupid, but that’s not the worst part. David goes to Fortness’ wife (Beatrice Straight) and teenage son (Ted Donaldson) where he proceeds to discipline the boy and tell him his father was a drunk who killed a man. Wow, David, thanks! Adding insult to injury, he says his intent is telling the son what his father really wanted to do which is be honest, and yet he lies to the wife when she asks if Robert was drunk when he told David the story. The audience sees Robert drink before telling David, yet this is what David lies about?
Later on, he goes to visit the family of Binky Gay (Shelley Winters) and Eddie Hoke (Keenan Wynn). These later stories, probably because they include appearances by Evelyn Varden and Davis, respectively, are extended into full-on flashbacks. We watch the stories unfold from the perspective of the family members. Apparently, this was the easiest way to give the big names additional screentime, but poor Michael Rennie, whose story is infinitely more humanistic than the latter two, is shafted to a few scenes in the opening. David tells us how to feel about Robert, the reason he comes off like a jerk, but by introducing flash-backs we get an equally simplistic descriptor of “Varden evil” and “Davis saint.” Even weirder is David’s rewriting history, turning Binky into an international star of the stage to guilt Varden into appreciating her. All of this would be great if there were any rules to the plot. Is this about making the family appreciate their deceased family members? Or making them feel bad in a “You’re a jerk and now they’re dead” way? The fact we have two issues with the plane – once it lands because of a delay and another it outright crashes – acts as reboot to a story already suffering from engine failure.
One recommendation I give Phone Call From a Stranger is it has a great supporting cast. Shelley Winters and Michael Rennie are good, injecting some affectation into their characters. Davis and Merrill just go through the motions, Davis especially who looks content to count her money while looking pitiful.
Phone Call From a Stranger is a highly bizarre movie. It’s worth watching if you’re interested in seeing Bette Davis slumming it before turning to utter camp with her 1960s output. The movie is only 90-minutes but feels far longer, especially with the frenetic story and various plot devices. Reading this review actually might ruin your experience if you’re like me and judged the tone from the title.
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The Bette Davis Collection