This week, Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal looks at a movie he recommends you check out on DVD.
In May 2009, Turner Classic Movies aired a bi-weekly, primetime series entitled “Latino Images in Film”, showcasing 40 films focused on the Chicano-American experience and Latino cinematic representations. Selections ranged from such well-known classics as Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954) and John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996), to exploitation fare such as Walk Proud and Boulevard Nights (both 1979), each film being introduced and briefly discussed by TCM host Robert Osborne and UCLA Professor Chon Noriega.
A few films, however, aired in the wee small hours of the morning sans commentary, presumably long after Robert and Chon had retired for the evening. Inexplicably deemed of insufficient interest for primetime viewers was 1962’s Strangers in the City, a fascinating, independently made feature about the travails of a Puerto Rican family living in New York City.
Regardless of its relegation to a late-night slot, however, Strangers in the City is on par with the best of filmmaker Shirley Clarke, whose similarly themed evocations of Big Apple, African-American life were making waves in the early 1960s, and have since been admitted to the canon. After spending the last half century in obscurity, it’s time this film earned similar acclaim.
The Alvarez family’s neighborhood is introduced during the opening credits via a well-edited series of shots that begin with panoramic views of Manhattan Island and end in bustling Spanish Harlem street scenes. Patriarch Jose (Camilo Delgado) has lost his job and now spends his time brooding and playing the guitar, son Filipe (Robert Gentile) has just started a new gig at a local grocery, daughter Elena (Greta Margos) sees career possibilities at the local sweatshop, and mother Antonia (Rosita de Triano) cooks, sews, and desperately tries to keep the peace at the dinner table.
Part of Filipe’s job involves delivering groceries, but his work is repeatedly disrupted by the street gang of dapper, cane-wielding thug Caddy (Robert Corso), who repeatedly waylays the lad and steals food (and, in one instance, a Christmas tree). The intervention of African-American samaritan Buck (Padjet Fredericks) temporarily saves Filipe from further beat-downs (though Caddy warns him to ‘pick sides, spic’), but he’s fired after refusing to pay for the lost goods, leaving his sister the family’s sole breadwinner.
Unfortunately, Elena’s boss Dan (Bob O’Connell) is a leering sleazebag who loans her body to his white employees as an after-hours bonus and inveigles her into working as an escort for out-of-town businessmen. Scenes of implied rape, partial nudity, ladies’ unmentionables, and bongo parties anticipate the ‘roughie’ explosion of the mid to late sixties, and the film sags at mid-point while the mundane details of escort work are explored in somewhat too great detail.
The film roars back during its final reel, however, as Filipe and Antonia concurrently discover what Elena’s getting up to after hours, and Jose suspects his wife of infidelity with Dan. The last five minutes offere a searing blend of despair and optimism, and the film ends with the same majestic establishing shots with which it began. There are a thousand stories in the naked city, and this has been one of them.
Though likely to be considered an ‘art film’ due to its unglamorous subject matter and low-budget limitations, Strangers in the City also has connections to exploitation cinema: writer-director Rick Carrier spent the bulk of his brief career working with sleaze merchant Barry Mahon on films such as Rocket Attack U.S.A. (1961) and The Beast That Killed Women (1965).
Those of a more refined nature will note with approval the presence of producer Ronnie Shedlo, later to produce another film in need of a digital overhaul, Bryan Forbes’ 1967 classic The Whisperers, while composer Bob Prince would achieve a modicum of success working with dance pioneer Jerome Robbins. With the exception of still active TV thesp Reni Santoni, however, this was a one-off opportunity for nearly everyone else in the cast and crew.
The print of Strangers in the City used by TCM was apparently ported over from a Charter Entertainment VHS tape and features badly squeezed opening credits. Shot in a widescreen process known as ‘Scanoscope’, it’s otherwise technically crude, but features exemplary cinematography by jack-of-all-trades Carrier, whose Yule-time Big Apple footage conveys a chilly atmosphere of slush filled streets, abandoned buildings, rat infested apartments, and general urban dread.
Prince’s score is evocative if spare, but dialogue and ambient sound are muffled throughout. Additionally, Jose’s doleful guitar compositions never come close to matching his finger picking, lending the feature an unintentional dreamlike quality.
Technical limitations aside, however, Strangers in the City is a film deserving of more than a single late-night airing on TCM, and would make a great addition to the DVD library of a specialist house such as First Run Features or Facets Video.