THE STRANGER’S HAND (Mario Soldati, 1952)

Films that we have loved since childhood we do not let go of easily. From a story by Graham Greene (who was also one of the film’s producers), La mano dello straniero (The Stranger’s Hand) was meant to be another The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed’s darkly fascinating piece of intrigue about postwar Europe. Apart from the Greene connection, Mario Soldati’s mystery recycles two of the earlier film’s stars, Trevor Howard and Alida Valli, enmeshing their characters in black-and-white Venice rather than black-and-white Vienna.* The Italian-British co-production was deemed by some an artistic failure, and it didn’t succeed financially either. But it has long been one of my favorite movies. Indeed, although The Third Man may be a (somewhat) better film, I love The Stranger’s Hand in a way I can never love Reed’s cold imitation of Orson Welles. Soldati’s film pulsates with passion, warmth and humanity I find lacking in The Third Man.

The film’s protagonist is eight-year-old Roger Court, in Venice, expecting to reunite with his father, British diplomat Major Court (Howard, at his best), whom he hasn’t seen in three years. Roger lives with his Aunt Rose, his mother having abandoned him. (“She doesn’t live with us,” is how he puts it.) Roger’s parents are divorced. Bereft of a mother, in the care of an aunt he clearly doesn’t like much (we see her when she boards him on the airplane before she takes off for Paris), Roger is alone in his hotel suite in a foreign land. His father telephones to announce their reunion that night. En route, however, Major Court departs prematurely to follow someone he knows, who is being guarded by a host of men, who looks sick, drugged, and who no longer recognizes him. This results in Major Court’s abduction by the sinister group. Roger is now bereft of a father as well as a mother. By morning, he is convinced that his father is dead, but the police authority, anxious not to involve Venice in a perilous political intrigue, tells Roger that the man to whom he spoke on the telephone “could have been anybody” and that his father will arrive momentarily. Roger roams Venice in search of his lost father.

He has an ally in Roberta, a sympathetic hotel secretary (Valli, marvelous). An illegal Istrian refugee, Roberta is herself at risk in helping the boy. She must also contend with an American boyfriend, Joe (Richard Basehart, excellent), who only wants to fuck her on her day off from work rather than help Roger find his father (“You know I like kids as well as anybody . . .”). Joe comes around, though, prompted by his genuine feelings for Roberta and, eventually, “the kid.” (Salient point in passing: Nazi torture during her interment in a concentration camp has left Roberta unable to bear children.) Joe, a sailor during the war, is now a “charter man”—someone who leases boats for temporary use, for instance, by tourists. A fleeting self-pitying remark by him associates this reduction in his own usefulness to his loss of youth.

The historical canvas upon which Soldati’s film unfolds has very much to do, however elusively, with Istria and Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. Istria, the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, passed from Habsburg to Italian rule after the First World War. Benito Mussolini forced “Italianization” onto Istria’s Slavic inhabitants, and the Nazi occupation that followed damaged the traditional tolerance that Croats and Serbs extended to one another. (Croats supported Hitler; Serbs did not.) After the Second World War, Yugoslavia took over Istria, its program of “ethnic cleansing” killing about 15,000 Istrians, with (according to Tito) some 300,000 fleeing for their lives—the very result Tito had been aiming at. Roberta would have been one of these. The drugged captive whom Major Court recognizes, diverting him from his reunion with Roger, is named Pescovic; he is an anti-Communist Yugoslav. (This is somewhat obscured by the fact that the English credits erroneously spell his name “Pescovitch.”) The Stranger’s Hand is the most convincing and compelling anti-Communist film in the English language I have seen—and a wonderful antidote to all the nonsense that Tito was such a splendid chap for insisting on a degree of independence from the Soviet Union. He was a beast.

The gang that holds captive Pescovic and Court, as well as others, aims at transporting them, under orders, to certain death. These prisoners are anti-Communist agents; it is hinted that Major Court’s “diplomatic service” is euphemistic for anti-Communist spy activities. Nothing here is so black-and-white; the film moves us to consider in full that Court skirts inhumanity by pursuing a political allegiance at the expense of his son. In a telling moment, when the police, having finally intervened, take Roger on a tour of hospitals and private medical facilities, the boy does not even recognize his father in a sick bed. A good deal is involved here: Roger’s memories of a healthy, upright parent; his traumatization. But surely the man’s prolonged absence from his also motherless son contributes to this awful outcome. Roger has been unnecessarily orphaned on both parental fronts.

Indeed, there is a confounding and complex irony at the heart of this film. Dr. Vivaldi, his father’s principal captor, acts far more kindly toward Roger than his father does. When Roger, on his own, searching for his missing father, becomes lost, he chances across Vivaldi in the street, who, gleaning whose son the English boy must be, buys him ice cream before guiding him back to his hotel. We watch the grandfatherly man become completely taken by the stubborn though polite child, and we see how bitterly he hates the business in which he is involved that may end in Major Court’s death. (We see this even more intensely in the exchanges between Vivaldi and the major—for instance, in Vivaldi’s remark that “the inevitable” must be given in to, even though it may mean his own permanent separation, at the last, from Venice, his beloved home.) Vivaldi tears a string, tying a piece of it around his finger and another piece around Roger’s, to signify their friendship and assuage the boy’s loneliness and give the boy hope. Back in his hotel room, Roger discards the gift. He doesn’t want a new friend; he wants his father. At the end, when Vivaldi dies from taking a bullet to spare Major Court’s life, he lies face down on the ground. “Who is that?” Roger asks his father. The reply: “Nobody; just a stranger.” We think, though, “You, Major Court, are the stranger to your son.” When we do this, we are attuned to the film; for the closing shot reveals the bit of string still wrapped around a finger of Vivaldi’s hand—among the most moving final shots in cinema.

Vivaldi, with almost unbearable irony, has already delivered, in conversation with Court, the film’s most trenchant line: “Aren’t we all fond of children?” As Vivaldi’s own voice reflects, the evidence suggests otherwise: Hitler; Tito. In a world where children’s deaths are routinely engineered, where is the fondness or hope for children? And what about the child whom Roberta would have wanted to have with her Joe? The Third Man takes a terrific jab at opportunism in war’s aftermath, at black marketeering; but in no way does it devastate like this film does.

Richard O’Sullivan is no more than adequate as Roger, and this does wobble the film a bit. But, by way of glorious compensation, Eduardo Ciannelli is brilliant as Vivaldi, giving the performance of his career.

Nino Rota’s score contains themes from Tchaikovsky, including the soul-stirring adagio from his Symphony No. 6 in B minor (“Pathétique”). However poorly this serves the Tchaikovsky, this plucking of themes out of their musical context, it serves the film very well.

* Soldati directed the tremendous battle scenes in King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956).

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