Monday, April 28, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Joseph Losey's Stranger on the Prowl (1953)


A casualty of the midcentury Hollywood blacklist, Joseph Losey's Stranger on the Prowl in many ways epitomizes an era of widespread paranoia and suppression which would cinematically cripple some of our greatest auteurs. Independently produced and shot in Italy throughout 1951, the film was clandestinely distributed at the height of the Red Scare following a number of years during which Losey had been named and subsequently summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to effectively testify against himself and fellow filmmakers with communist ties. Indeed, Losey had joined the Communist Party in 1946 after working on many leftist film and theater productions over the preceding decade, and was soon unemployable, retreating to Europe to forge the second act of a career which had already proven as formally provocative as it was politically progressive.

Although he was essentially forced out of Hollywood, when one considers his career-long thematic commitment to foreign cultures and concerns, it begs to reason that Losey wouldn't have much altered his approach had he stayed local. After all, few films of their respective periods are as socially attuned and engaged as, say, The Lawless, a studio production concerning the rights of migrating Latino labor between the borders of Mexico and California, or, a quarter century later, Monsieur Klein, a fictionalized, Kafka-esque account of Parisian Jews attempting to escape their homeland only to see it get pulled further into the horrors of the second World War. One of American cinema's most cultivated and cosmopolitan filmmakers, Losey had from the beginning staked his unique claim as chronicler of the dispossessed and disenfranchised—even his first film, The Boy with Green Hair, dealt with nothing less than the rehabilitation of war orphans.

Credited under the single pseudonym Andrea Forzano, but in fact directed by Losey and adapted from a Noël Calef short story by fellow blacklistee Ben Barzman, Stranger on the Prowl is perhaps even more indicative of Red Hollywood's reputation as a systematic institution of censorship which ultimately buried few worthwhile artists or artifacts. Not a great film, but an exceedingly fascinating one, Stranger on the Prowl (its Italian title, translated as "Boarding at Midnight," is more redolent of its actual mood) suggests at least as much formal experimentation as political restlessness. Opening as our anti-hero, known only as the Man (Paul Muni), is being apprehended for stowing away on a cargo vessel off the shore of an anonymous Italian port village, the film takes its chosen locale as stylistic correlative, adopting the then-nouvelle neorealist aesthetic introduced internationally by the likes of Visconti, De Sica, and Rossellini.

As Muni's ambiguously motivated vagrant traverses the town's primitive yet commercially vibrant landscape, a mischievous young boy (Vittorio Manunta) is introduced taking odd jobs and, failing that, swindling his way to a quick buck. Losey is democratic in his documentation of each of these characters, and for the first half of the film it could be said that the town itself and its masses alike are the central subjects. Losey spends a good deal of time simply observing various rituals and activities while his two leads skirt the margins of the narrative. It's only when an accidentally violent act bring the two together that the narrative narrows into more of a genre framework. Now legitimately on the lam, these pair of outsiders make for an odd couple which is played at first for comedy, then soon after as drama, and finally as tragedy. The climatic set piece (one of Losey's most memorable), staged as a shootout atop the village rooftops, brings all the film's various modes together in one final, emotional flourish. When the authorities fail—or rather, refuse—to heed the boy's pleas for mercy for his unfortunately fated cohort, events turn grim, the noir-ish shadows that Losey and co-cinematographers Henri Alekan and Antonio Fiore so ably render turned a suffocating, pessimistic pronouncement. This scenario, a difficult, near-contradictory struggle between institutional strictures and social advancement, is blunt but earnest—and one unfortunately suited as much for contemporary debate as it was during the era in which the film was made.

Image/Sound:
Arriving on home video for the first time in any format, Stranger on the Prowl bows on Blu-ray from Olive Films looking rough from years of neglect. Sourced from an original, unrestored print, the transfer bears all the hallmarks of its age: scratches, soft contrast, faded blacks, unstable frames. That being said, it's watchable and authentically worn with no egregious inconsistencies and some minor detail visible in some of the less volatile shooting environments. Sound, meanwhile, is similarly untouched. Presented in a DTS-HD mono track, the audio is shaky throughout, with dialogue (much of it dubbed) competing with background noise and the outdoor elements of the production. Like the image, the soundtrack is at the mercy of the film's surviving condition.

Extras:
As is the case with most Olive releases, there are no supplements offered. Which is a shame as Stranger on the Prowl's contextual history is arguably as interesting as the film itself.

Overall:
Director Joseph Losey's first film after being run out of the country in the wake of the Hollywood blacklist, Stranger on the Prowl nonetheless suggests at least as much formal experimentation as it does political restlessness. [Slant]

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