Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Return of a Stranger (1961)

My notes on the British B picture Return of a StrangerAnother British B from the Danzigers, directed with noirish flair by Max Varnel from a tight little Brian Clemens script which foreshadows his 1970s Thriller TV series.

Ray and Pam Reed (John Ireland and Susan Stephen) have just moved into an ideal home in the suburbs and have a 1961 version of the good life – Ray is due for a big promotion at the ad agency where he works, and Pam is mother of a theoretically adorable (actually horrid) little boy named Tommy (Timothy Beaton). But Pam is seriously spooked when several people report that a small, balding man has been asking about where she lives. Eventually, she bumps into this mystery character in a supermarket and runs in terror from the shadowman – Varnel only shows the stranger, Homer Trent (Cyril Shaps), from behind until the climax. The persecution steps up, as the Reeds receive silent phone calls, Pam is called supposedly by the school and led to believe Tommy has been abducted, and an undertaker is sent to the house with instructions to prepare for Ray’s funeral. The police inspector (Patrick McAlinney) is tolerant, but unhelpful – at first dismissing the reports as down to shut-in housewife hysteria, and then following the Cape Fear line that he can’t do anything until the persecutor actually commits a crime. The situation is complicated because Pam doesn’t want to admit that she knows Homer – who forced his attentions on her when she was a fourteen-year-old in an orphanage – since she’s lived down that scandal. Homer has apparently told her not to get married and has come out of serving a prison sentence (for statutory rape, though the r word isn’t used) intent on reclaiming her as his property. Eventually, Homer tries to kill Ray, but traps a colleague (Kevin Stoney) in a plummeting lift instead, which makes Ray look suspicious since he has been so jittery and unreliable thanks to the persecution that he’s lost a promotion to the dead man.

Naturally, it climaxes with a home invasion – and we finally get to see the mild, fanatical stalker’s face just before Pam flings a saucepan of boiling milk into it. The set-up seems like a sketch for the later, more elaborate The Very Edge – in which an RAC motorcyclist (Jeremy Brett) similarly tries to get another shot at the housewife (Anne Heyward) he once raped – but it works well in this scaled-down version, which doesn’t go on so much about the way the heroine’s ordinary stuck-at-home plight shades into her ordeal. Clemens has a knack for making plots which mesh – there’s an excruciating credibility about the minor pranks which serve to fray the nerves, undermine the career (Ray has to rush out of an important meeting to deal with his hysterical wife, prompting much tut-tutting by a boss who demands get-up-and-go) and reinforce the heroine’s feeling of helplessness. The very mildness of the villain – characterised by his thinning hair, desperate comb-over and obvious lack of sexual charisma – is horribly credible, as is this nasty little man’s conviction that he ought to own forever the child he once abused (Pam confesses that he ‘made love to her’ in a car). This is an odd case where the film is slightly unbalanced by its most prominent performer – bought-in Yank Ireland, who prefigures the American guest stars in Thriller, is given thick glasses but is still miscast. He’s just too tough-seeming to be as credibly threatened as a lightweight player might have been in the circumstances. However, the gawky Stephen (oddly credible as a teenager in the orphanage flahsbacks) and perennial bit-player Shaps (who was always cast as one-scene tailors or officials) are perfect for small-scale suburban terror.


One thought on “Film review – Return of a Stranger (1961)

  1. Thorough review Kim, though I think the one thing that unbalances this even more than Ireland is the musical score – it sounds more like it belongs in an bland Ian Carmichael comedy than a thriller.

    Posted by Matt Green | October 1, 2018, 2:38 pm

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: