Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Steve McQueen in NEVER LOVE A STRANGER (1958)

Harold Robbins co-wrote this screenplay adapting his own early best-seller from 1948. Unsurprisingly, there's a strong narrative voice through much of the picture, but it begins with a desperate drive by what looks like a dying man, ending in a crash and a body tumbling out of the car. From there we travel back in time to the year 1912, which seems a long way to go at first. A sick young woman is taking lodging in a rough building. The landlady tosses the poor girl's suitcase into a closet, where it promptly disappears behind the wall. Try to remember that, but our first concern is the young woman's health. She's in the family way, you see. But alas, she'll not long survive the blessed event. She expires upon naming her newborn "Francis Kane."

Francis is raised in a Catholic orphan asylum and becomes an industrious bootblack and boy of all work for one of the local pool halls. He's running with the wrong crowd, but that doesn't stop him from stepping in when the gang menaces a harmless Jewish boys. Their anti-Semitic sensors seem to be off, though, because Steve McQueen hardly seems like a Jew. Frankie saves him by putting him down with one punch, which Steve, who we'll call Marty Cabell for our purposes, appreciates as a reasonable alternative to a protracted beatdown. Marty invites Frankie to his place to teach him how to box. Frankie also gets to meet Marty's sister Julie (Lita Milan). Those clever Jews: Julie doesn't even look or sound like she's from the same country as Marty. Frankie, however, is unprejudiced, for who could be prejudiced against such a dish.

Two representative men of the 1920s: Steve McQueen thanks John Drew Barrymore for knocking him out in NEVER LOVE A STRANGER (photo from

Things are looking up for Frankie on both the romantic and criminal fronts until a shocking discovery is made. The old landlady finally hauls Frankie's mom's suitcase out from behind the closet, and inside finds a book written, as Frankie puts it, "in Jewish." A terrible mistake has been made! The well-meaning authorities seem to think it was unfair of them to raise as a Catholic someone who should have been a Jew, but Frankie sees it all differently. "I don't want to be a Jew!" he cries, and rather than face transfer to a Jewish school, he hops a freight, leaving behind a bankroll he's been keeping for his mentor Silk Fennelli (erstwhile Mike Hammer Robert Bray), with instructions for Julie to return it to Silk. Fennelli shows his gratitude by making her a nightclub singer and kept woman, while Frankie has timed his hobo adventure for the advent of the Great Depression, and lean years follow for him.

I have to remind you occasionally about the time frame of our story because the film itself can confuse you. Unless you look at the cars, you could hardly tell from how the people look that the story's taking place sometime earlier than 1958. Neither Steve McQueen nor our actual star, John Drew Barrymore, looks right for the period. They are neither Fop nor Dapper Dan men. I owe you an account of young Barrymore. He is the missing link, if you please, between alcoholic master thespian John Barrymore and alcoholic actress-producer Drew Barrymore. John Drew was pretty much just alcoholic. Not long after this starring role in a low-budget Allied Artists release, he was supporting Steve Reeves in The Trojan Horse across the big water, and it was further downhill from there.But whereas his father could still earn money by shamelessly parodying himself, and his daughter can claim to be a successful show-business survivor, JDB finished his career literally as a bum. But don't blame Never Love A Stranger for that. He lacks intensity, but has some of the family charisma.

As Frankie, he returns to New York to take a WPA job, during which he is hit by a truck during a moment of inattention. He's hospitalized just as Marty, a rising young prosecutor, is visiting the building. Marty gives his old pal $20 to get him started again, and once on his feet Frankie restores himself to Silk Fennelli's service as a most trusty gunsel. After three years as Silk's right hand, Frankie's impatient to take over and establish some order in the underworld. He makes his move at a gang conference, clobbering Silk into submission and declaring himself the guarantor of peaceful crime. For reasons known only to Harold Robbins, Frankie does not exterminate Silk, but retains him as an underling while reclaiming his relationship with Julie. It will be increasingly apparent that Frankie is sort of soft.

He runs the New York bookmaking operations from the safety of New Jersey, where newly-minted special prosecutor Marty can't touch him. Marty is not exactly Thomas Dewey. His campaign to defeat Frankie consists largely of meeting him at restaurants or calling him on the phone and asking him nicely to turn himself in. Otherwise, he waits for Frankie to slip up and step across the river. Meanwhile, Silk looks for some way to avenge his humiliation. He doesn't like Frankie's indulgence toward Mosh, a Jewish numbers man who wants to retire. Silk thinks Mosh should die because there's too much chance of him turning rat, but Frankie trusts the old man. Finally, Silk weaves a plot to eliminate Mosh, Frankie, Marty and his sister in one Corleonian swoop, with help from Flix the hitman (Peckinpah stalwart R.G. Armstrong). I'll skip to climactic details except to bring us back to that careening car from the opening, then forward once more to another birth and the continuation of the Kane lineage.

I think this is meant as some sort of gangster tearjerker. Everything from the omniscient narration and the lachrymose theme song to the sentimental score by Raymond Scott (otherwise a powerhouse composer) and the circle-of-life finale point that way. It certainly tries harder at that than it does to recreate the 1930s on screen. Maybe the filmmakers thought the period was close enough to the present that people wouldn't notice anachronisms, but more likely they just lacked money. The director, Robert Stevens, worked mostly in television. IMDB credits him with 44 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock show. Going to 90 minutes may have been beyond his powers. His direction here is efficient but uninspired, lacking forcefulness or momentum.

The acting throughout is pretty green. If you didn't know McQueen on sight you might not accuse him of stealing scenes. His job is to be dully earnest and he earns his pay. He is at least competent. It's hard to judge Barrymore apart from the implausibilities of the character he plays, but I think he could have handled better material. Neither actor embarrasses himself, but they look pretty silly anyway, trapped in such a silly story. The title should have told me not to expect anything really raw or violent, but the DVD did hint at something like that. This film probably exists in digital form only because McQueen is in it, playing what's apparently his first billed role, so it's historical interest is obvious, but I'm afraid that there's little of interest apart from that unless I've made it sound campy enough for an unintended laugh.

Of the book, its original publisher reportedly said: "it was the first time he had ever read a book where on one page you'd have tears and on the next page you'd have a hard-on." If so, Robbins did not do justice to his own work this time.

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