A curious picture in some ways, Stranger at My Door is, I suppose, a Western. It starts with a James gang-style bank robbery and later there’ll be a horse chase and gunplay. Yet in other ways it’s more a slice of Americana, and a (rather heavy-handed) message film.
The screenplay was by Barry Shipman, from his own story. Mr Shipman (1912 – 1994) was the son of Canadian motion picture pioneers and worked in Hollywood on over a hundred features and TV shows, many of them Western, though he is probably most remembered for Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. He wrote many of those Charles Starrett Durango Kid pictures at Columbia as well as several Republic serials, especially Lone Ranger ones. It was there that he got in with directors John English and William Witney, and it was Witney who directed Stranger at My Door.
Witney was a very proficient helmsman of low-budget oaters and especially good at action. He applied some of those skills to this picture, though much of the plot required a more static and more talky approach. He successfully used some noir techniques too, which suited the story, and the maybe not-so-Western title. Apparently the film was particularly dear to him, and I get that.
The plot is quite simple. Outlaw boss Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) leads a violent bank raid but when the gang splits up afterwards his horse goes lame and he holes up at a ranch owned by a preacher, Hollis Jarret (Macdonald Carey), who has a glam second wife, Peg (Patricia Medina) and a young son, Dodie (Stephen Wootton). This family appears improbably saintly and happy, concentrating on the cute kid and his cute dog, all very family-friendly, though it is actually darker than that and under the strain of harboring the criminal, cracks will appear in the apparently perfect surface. Most of the picture is essentially a psychodrama set at the ranch.
Homeier had started as a child actor and his first Western was in 1950 as Hunt Bromley, the punk would-be gunslinger who shot Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, and he thereafter got rather typecast in punk-kid bad-guy roles. But he was a bit older now (26) and in fact was aiming at stardom. The same year as Stranger Republic had him lead in a Joe Kane Western, Thunder Over Arizona, and the following year he would top the bill in a crime drama, No Road Back. But it didn’t really take and he was better, and more memorable, as the heavy. He’s darn good in this one, maybe the best I’ve ever seen him, in fact. His character’s name is a classic Western one, referencing Clay Allison and Bloody Bill Anderson in a portmanteau of perfidy.
Top-billed Carey, who does a good job in Stranger as the decent, even smug, but as it turns out gutsy reverend, is best known for his role as Dr Tom Horton on NBC’s soap Days of Our Lives but in features in the 1940s and 50s, he became known as ‘the King of the Bs’. He didn’t specialize in Westerns but he did a few, and you may remember him as Lorn Reming in Streets of Laredo, or as Jim Bowie in Comanche Territory. He was Jesse James in The Great Missouri Raid in 1951, though producer Nat Holt later admitted he had confused Corey ‘n’ Carey, and had meant to cast Corey as brother Frank and Wendell Carey as Jesse.
For me, Patricia Medina as the essentially bored wife Peg who is tempted to succumb to the amorous blandishments of the outlaw, was the weakest link. She overacts and seems to be constantly screaming. She was probably good in other genres. She was often a voluptuous dusky maiden in pirate movies.
There were some good performances in smaller roles, notably Louis Jean Heydt as the decent sheriff who accidentally shoots the boy while trying to catch the bandit, and is racked by guilt, Howard Wright as the doc who tries to save the child but realizes it’s going to take a miracle and he doesn’t believe in miracles, and (still quite) Slim Pickens as the local rancher who sells the preacher a feisty stallion, Lucifer, against his better judgment.
Quentin Tarantino is apparently a great admirer of this film because of the symbolic stallion-taming (read outlaw-redeeming) sequences, and I must admit they were spectacular. Full marks to stuntman Joe Yrigoyen, and I was going to say stunt-dog too but (luckily) they used a fake canine for that bit, phew.
The music, by Dale Butts, was noticeably somber at the right moments, occasionally bucolic when required and even verged on the ecclesiastical when the church-building came into play. Anyway it was good at creating atmosphere.
Republic regular Bud Thackery was at the camera and did a good job in black & white, managing some noirish tints here and there. The print on YouTube was very good quality (and without ads) so that was a plus.
Overall, there’s no doubt that the moral of the tale is overdone. Reviewer Dennis Schwartz called it “A Christian-based evangelical B Western with a heavy-handed religious message about redemption” and said, “Its target Christian evangelical audience should be pleased, as the film is competently directed and acted, well-presented and gets in all the talking points about believing in God and miracles. However, others not so inclined to such a strident fundamentalist religious view may have trouble relating to its questionable inspirational message.” Schwartz added, “For me, the rigid piety of the religious drama was hard to stomach.” I must say, I didn’t find it that bad at all. Yes, it’s clearly a ‘Christian’ film, and atheists and followers of other religions may be put off by that, I guess, but it is thought-provoking, whatever your beliefs, and leaving aside the too-obvious ‘message’, it does create a sense of menace and indeed sexual tension pretty well.
If nothing else, this Western (I think it’s a Western) is interesting.