Huston: We Were Strangers (1949)

We Were Strangers is a loosely fictionalised account of the ABC, the revolutionary organisation that arose in opposition to the Cuban government of Gerardo Machado in the early 1930s. While the ABC didn’t align itself with either fascist or communist ideology, its manifesto was much closer to that of communism, advocating women’s suffrage, workers’ autonomy and collective bargaining rights as some of its key missions. It also conducted terror attacks, one of which forms the focus of Huston’s film – the assassination of Senate President Clemente Vaquez Bello, for the purpose of bombing his funeral, and so killing a large proportion of the Machado administration, who would have been in attendance. As it turned out, a last-minute change to the burial site foiled this plan, which became a symbol both of the ABC’s aspirations and its frustrations during the years when Machado still held sway. In Huston’s hands, that story is told from the perspective of China Valdes (Jennifer Jones), a Cuban political activist who is further radicalised when her brother is assassinated by the pora, or secret police. Shortly after, Valdes meets Tony Fenner (John Garfield), an American radical, who convinces her to join him and a group of other Cuban revolutionaries.

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Fenner’s plan is quite similar to that of the ABC attack on Bello. First, they will assassinate a member of the Cuban administration. Then, they will plant a bomb beneath his crypt in order to destroy as many members of the administration as possible. For this to work, however, they need to build a tunnel between Valdes’ house and the cemetery across the road, which is where the crypt is located. The construction of this tunnel takes up most of We Were Strangers, which is firmly aligned with the revolutionaries, and just as opposed to the pora, or secret police. From the prologue, in which the Cuban parliament decrees that meetings of more than four people are forbidden, the pora are tasked with preventing a public sphere above all else. While public space is a necessity, the film suggests, it is equally necessary to the Machado regime that people never have any sense of collective communion while they are together in public. For the revolutionaries, meeting is therefore almost as risky as constructing the tunnel, allowing Huston to build a strong sense of the radical potential of people communing collectively, and operating with a common purpose.

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Over the course of the film, the cemetery becomes the one place where a public sphere can really thrive. Above ground, it reminds the radicals of their comrades who have fallen, but also of the fact that all the members of Machado regime will eventually fall as well. Below ground, it provides them with a space where they can gather and exchange revolutionary ideas, as their meetings gradually sprawl out from Valdes’ house to the tunnel that is snaking beneath the road and under the gravestones. In both cases, Huston suggests, the best way for radicals to operate is as if they were already dead, or as irrelevant as if they were dead, appearing to work within the limitations that the ruling class have set for them. With most of the key moments of the film taking place underground, the collaborators all learn to embrace their social invisibility to fly under the radar, just as the film itself presents them as a series of left-wing stereotypes, only to gradually allow them to traverse the audience’s expectations as the plot proceeds, and their revolutionary goal comes into sight.

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During the late 1940s, Hollywood was fascinated with revolutionary movements in other parts of the world. Sometimes these provided a safe way of looking back on the horrors of World War II, while sometimes they provided an easy vehicle for emotion, especially in films about Latin America and the Caribbean, which were often shot through with a sentimental Catholicism that fixated upon martyred and Madonna-like women. For the most part, however, Huston’s sympathy with the revolutionaries prevents Valdes being characterized in this light, quickly dissociating her from any real Madonna role, and the exotic romance of revolutionary women. More specifically, Valdes is never presented as being displaced from a romantic narrative or a more properly domestic sphere, since her conversations with other men, which take up the bulk of the film, tend to be largely strategic and political in nature. At the same time, Huston doesn’t present her as utterly devoid of sentiment either, since that would be to exoticise her in a different kind of way. Instead, she is deeply affected by the death of her brother, but also the first to shed sentimentality when it comes to action. While her relationship with Fenner has a romantic edge, it never blossoms out into a romance per se, just as all the nocturnal spaces and experiences that they are are suffused with a body language that speaks to a class solidarity that goes above and beyond romance.

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In fact, the only character in the film who treats Valdes as a sexual object is Armando Ariete (Pedro Armendariz), an operative in the pora who quickly becomes suspicious of her rapport with Fenner. While Armendariz is the top-billed non-white actor, he’s actually the strongest purveyor of Hollywood expectations, demanding that Valdes either disclose her romance with Fenner, or embark upon a romance with him, but refusing in both cases to accept that she could have an identity outside of her romantic or sexual prowess. For much of the film, Ariete’s insistence on romancing Valdes is as threatening as his surveillance – it is a form of surveillance – signaling the intrusion of a Hollywood narrative trajectory into a political scenario that is inherently intrinsic to it. In Valdes’ conversations with Fenner, then, the conservative government and the American media are fused into one oppressive entity, perhaps explaining why Ariete’s insistence on his own capacity for sentiment feels modelled on a cheesy Hollywood film: “I am easily moved…a beautiful sunset brings tears to my eyes.”

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To his credit, Huston defines his own characterisation of Valdes against what Ariete expects of her. While she may have a brief moment of doubt as the tunnel is being completed, it’s just marked enough to make her seem plausible and, once again, to prevent her being exoticised as a heartless revolutionary. This moment also makes it all the more dramatic when she doubles down on her convictions, allowing her to finally enjoin Fenner to divest himself of his residual sentiment, and his residual Hollywood expectations, when their plan is thwarted: “How you feel doesn’t matter – nothing about you matters to Cuba except the failure of the tunnel itself.” Even Ariete’s moment of greatest anxiety is subtly inverted in this way, as she awakens from a nightmare, and kisses a crucifix, only to reveal that her nightmare was of confessing, and of being reduced to a sexual object in the process of confessing, rather than committing the attack itself. Similarly, while her nightmare ended with her hanging Ariete from a lamp post, and burning his body, her deepest fear – even deeper than her fear of violence, or of her own capacity for violence – is that the plan will fail, and that the future will remain squarely in the hands of Machado’s and his government.

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That fear of failure drives the film, and leads to one revolutionary aphorism after another, starting with Fenner’s stern directive: “Don’t think we’ll fail – even in your dream.” Yet that fear is also the most important propulsive force in constructing the tunnel, which becomes a prototype for the heist genre that Huston would cement in his next film, The Asphalt Jungle. Like the classic heist, this terrorist attack depends upon working with a “mixed lot” or crew of participants, since “five mechanics couldn’t do the job, or five aristocrats, or five dockworkers either.” Like a classic heist, too, it’s important for all of the participants to remain strangers beyond a certain point. The title of the film doesn’t merely refer to Valdes and Fenner, but to all the radicals, who have to partly eschew the sentimental proximity of Hollywood cinema, and rely on their forced estrangement from one another under the Machado regime, in order to preserve viable lines of communication. Even though the ABC refused to align itself with either capitalism or communism, this heist ethos feels communist in spirit, as does the heist in American cinema more generally, given its focus on intersectional collectivity, and the way it moves past sentiment to suggest transpersonal ways of relating to and understanding communal action. In effect, the different skill sets of the participants in We Were Strangers are their different class backgrounds and experiences of oppression, but watching it some seventy years later, it’s not hard to feel that this would eventually become the motor engine of even the most apparently conservative Hollywood heists too, which often worked as ways of configuring class in a supposedly classless society.

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What makes We Were Strangers a bit different from the regular heist film is the absence of the centripetal third act, in which the participants in the heist go their separate ways and disperse once again into broader society. Typically, this comes with a new awareness of both their own power as individuals, and their power when they combine with a collective, and is much more elaborated in the third act of The Asphalt Jungle, released a year later. In We Were Strangers, however, the sense of entrapment only intensifies in the third act, shifting the images more in the direction of a prison film, often recalling the great working class features of the Soviet Bloc, particularly Andrez Wajda’s war trilogy. Most of this third act is set underground, in stifling and histrionic conditions, suffused with an inebriated atmosphere that offsets any residual affiliation with American values, or the language of classical Hollywood. Not only does Fenner turn out to have been born in Cuba, displacing him as a source of American agency, but American finance and diplomacy are presented as powerless in the face of the pora, while the film reserves even more contempt for the tourists that arrive by the boatload from Miami than for the corrupt economy they support.

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With American agency so denuded and divested from the film, We Were Strangers becomes the first of many deterretorialised works that pop up throughout Huston’s career. For many film critics, especially Andrew Sarris, Huston sat on the fringes of respectable auteurism, partly because his works were often perceived to lack a single unified style, or to depend too much on adaptations of other authors and auteurs. Yet that’s partly because his work was consistently experimenting with ways to look at Hollywood from the outside while still operating within a studio-bound system, making for films that felt minor, or that framed Hollywood itself as minor, in ways that offset the kinds of grand gesture possible while still working within a total Hollywood mindset. It’s this aspect of Huston that Orson Welles celebrates in The Other Side of the Wind, where he plays veteran director Jake “J.J.” Hanaford. It’s also this aspect of Huston that meant his genre exercises, such as Beat the Devil and The Misfits – were almost inevitably or inadvertently parodic, suggesting that Huston was simply unable to operate in good faith within genre even when he was trying to.

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Still, We Were Strangers does anticipate the heist film in the commitment that all the characters have to their purpose right up until the end. Powerfully, the film doesn’t end with a change of heart from either Valdes or Fenner, but simply a change in circumstances, as a shift in the location of the funeral means that their tunnel has come to nothing. Similarly, while Fenner is shot trying to escape, there’s no question that Valdes plans to continue fighting, galvanised by the collective purpose that the tunnel gave her. While the end is moving, the sentiment never cuts across Valdes’ conviction that the dignity of the revolution depends upon her willingness to be strangers amongst other people again, giving the conclusion an odd tonality that sits uncomfortably with Hollywood catharsis at this time. In the final sequence, we find out that the revolution has been successful despite the tunnel failing, and are encouraged to return to complacency with a Cuban folk song about it, a folk song designed to transmit the satisfaction of the revolution to future generations. Just when the film seems on the verge of concluding by placing us in this comforting position of critical hindsight in the remote future, however, the folk song shifts into a minor key, and gathers into an assertive, strident motif that segues uneasily into the Universal Studios theme itself.

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For all that the film ends by presenting revolution as spatially and temporally remote from the United States, then, Huston ends by emphasizing an intensified present tense within which revolution is always a necessity, and always a priority. In order to capture why that might be the case, however, he eventually exceeds the political lens of Hollywood cinema at this time. As with Across the Pacific, this results in the film glimpsing a genre that didn’t yet exist – the action film – as Huston tries to grapple with political conflicts and revolutionary impulses that were largely unknowable and incapable of representation in Hollywood at this moment. Whereas the proto-action lexicon of Across the Pacific involved pairing Bogart at his most diminutive with the biggest gun in Hollywood cinema to date, We Were Strangers ends with an overwhelming barrage of machine gun conflict, as the pora storm the house where the tunnel was being built, and Valdes and Fenner fight for their lives. The sheer length, noise and intensity of this sequence is still remarkable by today’s standards, evincing a pleasure in the sheer plosive and visceral materiality of warfare quite uncommon even in the most dramatic war films of the 40s. Paired with the most outlying vision of the film – a glimpse of a black revolutionary midway through, shirtless, confident and armed with a sub-machine gun – it evokes a series of political situations, and American fears, too inchoate and emergent to be fully encapsulated within the language of Hollywood genre as it then stood.

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If Huston was an almost-auteur, it was partly because of this fascination with all the things that genre leaves out, as well as his interest in genres that hadn’t yet been fully named or invented, structures of feeling that were only just starting to emerge whenever he committed them to film. Just as The Maltese Falcon helped invent noir before noir had a name, and Across the Pacific was an action film before its time, so We Were Strangers is strung between two genres – action and heist – that hadn’t been fully formulated yet, giving it a provisional and improvisational quality that makes the revolutionary aspirations of its protagonists feel peculiarly and evocatively open-ended. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that it was one of the last films that Lee Harvey Oswald watched before assassinating John F. Kennedy, since it speaks to a limitation to American perception even or especially within the mechanisms of American technology and media that seem most omniscient and powerful. While Huston would respond to that limitation curiously, others, like Oswald, would respond to it defensively, but both reactions are part of the American fissures that We Were Strangers sees as the spaces where revolution occurs – the fissures that Huston shaped and moulded into the bedrorck of a remarkably and elegantly fissured body of work.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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