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We Were Strangers

Though often relegated to his minor works (or unsuccessful ones), the events of September 11th make John Huston's We Were Strangers (1949) of renewed interest. The film concerns the growing seeds of revolution in Cuba in 1933, with the story beginning as the government enacts a law to repress the people from gathering and rebelling. This leads to the sister of a revolutionary, bank teller "China" Valdez (Jennifer Jones), joining up with the underground after these new laws allow secret policeman Armando Ariete (Pedro Armendáriz) to murder her brother for spreading pamphlets. Once she meets the revolutionaries, they are able to put her to use when she reveals that when important dignitaries die, the president and other big-wigs go to the cemetery next to her house, which leads to a plan to kill these leaders by bombing the graveyard after they assassinate someone with enough significance to get a state funeral. A group of six are gathered at her place, strangers at the start, to dig a tunnel under the cemetery. Tony Fenner (John Garfield, marvelous as always) becomes the de facto leader, an American who sympathizes with the revolution because his family comes from Cuba. The group's actions draw the suspicions of Ariete, not least of all because he's attracted to China. But plotting an assassination wears on the group, and though they've grown closer, the strain of constant digging — mixed with the fact that their plan may involve sacrificing innocent lives — causes dissonance. With terrorism and suicide bombing dominating international headlines, it's striking that — though it would be easy for Huston to simply favor the revolutionaries plight — he doesn't romanticize them in We Were Strangers. The people wish to enact change, but they also have decided that the sacrifice of innocent people's lives is worth their goal, something the script itself seems uncomfortable with. In that way the picture presages Gillo Pontecorvo's similar The Battle of Algiers. As a John Huston film, it fits nicely in his catalog, another one of his great movies about desperate and disparate groups of people struggling to achieve something, only to fall short in the end, and he gets great performances out of his leads. But as appealing as Garfield and Jones are, Armendáriz steals the film in one scene, when he gets drunk and confesses his attraction to Jones in a riveting sequence of pathos. Columbia TriStar presents We Were Strangers in its original full frame aspect ratio (1.33:1) and monaural DD 2.0 audio. The transfer is adequate and reflects cinematographer Russell Metty's brilliant use of blacks. Also included are bonus trailers. Keep-case.
—DSH



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