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When Strangers Appear

In the world of films noir — carcinogens be damned — all women should smoke. Be they the lead or a femme fatale, it sets the tone, showing these women to be working class, frustrated, perhaps sexually unfulfilled, and looking to escape the dreariness of their lives. Director Scott Reynolds probably knows this, as Radha Mitchell's character Beth in When Strangers Appear starts her slow day by lighting up. Beth runs a diner where she is the sole employee, and the only customers who show up since the new freeway opened are either people who lost their way, wanted to lose their way, or people trying to go surfing. When a young man (Barry Watson) shows up with 80¢ in his pocket and orders a half a hot dog, she compassionately makes him breakfast. But when another car shows up filled with three surfers, the stranger hides and tells Beth that the three want him dead. Led by the attractive and sensitive Peter (Josh Lucas, who seems to be channeling Matthew McCoughnehey), the surfers don't seem to be up to any trouble, but Beth believes the mysterious stranger's story enough to let it pass, and she isn't about to go to the police as the one cop in town (Kevin Anderson) once got away with raping her. But when Beth discovers that the stranger is bleeding from a knife wound, she takes him to the motel she also owns, and to a doctor she trusts. But, of course ... no one is who they seem to be. Like any good thriller, the less said about it the better, but Reynolds' film (his third feature) feels like a novice effort, as it's filled with the excitement and the flaws that come with freshman endeavors. Frankly, When Strangers Appear seems like it needed another writer or two to come across as something more than just a fun exercise for its director. But, if one takes the film as an exercise in style, it is effective in employing the two most important elements of any good noir: dramatic irony and the deliberate pacing required to keep an audience tense. Reynolds' patience in setting up scenes makes the story more involving, and though the constant flip-flopping of suspicions grows wearisome, the staging of the thriller sequences (which, as Brian De Palma proves, is all important) are stunning. For a small cast, it is impressively rounded out, with Radha Mitchell (best known from High Art and Pitch Black) commanding the frame, though all of the leads do a good job of playing up the mystery without betraying their characters. Columbia TriStar's When Strangers Appear DVD presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) on one side, with pan-and-scan on the other. Bonuses are limited to filmographies and a trailer gallery. Keep-case.

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