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Hipster Holy Grail: The Stranger (1987)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

There were some decent - even great - ideas in The Stranger.  It has a nice, low-key quality to it that complements the cast and the subject matter.  Unfortunately, it misses the mark.  It's what you get when you take a moody noir with lots of great archetypes and you strip out all the energy, pacing, and snappy dialogue.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5 (Almost Good Movie)

The Plot Summary

We open with a brutal home invasion sometime in the afternoon.  Alice Kildee (Bonnie Bedelia) hides in a closet and watches in horror as some violent men terrorize a family for unknown reasons.  They trash up the living room and then shoot the father figure dead before moving on to murder the rest.  Alice panics and runs out of the closet, then crawls through a bedroom window.  She escapes across a wide, green field in the countryside as the bad guys chase her...

...and then we cut to Alice running to her car on an urban street sometime in the evening.  Hmm.  Weird, I guess parking in the country is harder to find than I thought.  Anyway, she gets in her car as the bad guys close in and is able to drive away.  But not for long - the bad guys veer her off the road and her car crashes in a horrible fireball.  Alice is able to get away without being burned to death, but she falls unconscious and defenseless.

Cut to Las Vegas. Dr. Harris Kite (Peter Riegert) is having a bad night.  He's just lost $62,000 and the weight of the world is clearly visible on his sad shoulders.  The casino owner invites Kite to come into his office and discuss how they'll resolve his debt.  Apparently, this isn't the first time Kite has lost a fortune here, but it is the worst debt he's ever racked up.  Since Kite has been good about paying things off in the past, the casino allows him to leave with an IOU under the condition that he pay them back in two weeks.

Dr. Kite leaves the city and returns to his home town, where he works in the psychiatric ward of a major hospital.  Upon returning to work, he's greeted by his colleague and on-again, off-again lover, Anita (Cecilia Roth), another doctor who was present when Alice was brought in from her car wreck.  Anita thinks Kite will find Alice's case interesting as she has full-blown amnesia.

Alice remembers nothing about her identity or past, but she does vividly remember the opening scene of the movie.  The police take down her report about the family's murder and start looking into it, but with no other clear details to go on, prospects seem dim.

Kite thinks she'd be a pretty good case study and also a welcome break from the patients he normally deals with, so he goes to the hospital director and asks to take over her case.  The doctor says they've invited a specialist in amnesia, Dr. Hobby, to fly in from out of state instead.  So Kite throws a hissy fit and demands her case.  The scene ends before we see what the decision was.  (Later we see him treating Alice, so I guess he got his way... not sure why they didn't just include that part here, but whatever.)

While that's going on, the police run into a dead end.  Spearheaded by Sergeant Drake (Barry Primus) and his oafish, constantly-eating partner, Macaw (Marcos Woinsky), the investigation has turned up no leads.  Supposedly there have been no crimes reported anywhere in the country that match Alice's testimony, which I find pretty hard to believe.  I bet I could make up any crime right now and somebody could find an open case somewhere in the country that's at least similar, if not identical.  Can't you allow for a fudge factor since you're going off her crappy memory and not tangible proof?  You're seriously telling me that there have been no murders within anybody's house anywhere in the country within the last week?  None?

But whatever, the movie needs to keep going.  So, Drake asks the newspaper to run a story on Alice in order to get her story out to the public.  His thinking is that maybe it'll trigger an anonymous tip or two that could help with the investigation.  Kite is against it, since putting Alice's picture on the front page with a headline that says, "SOLE WITNESS TO HORRIBLE MURDER" kinda seems to be maybe an invitation to disaster.  But Drake's the cop, so what can anybody else do?

Smash cut to a small airport where our principal villain, Jay (Julio De Grazia), is hanging out in his private hangar.  Jay is an ambiguously rich and powerful so-and-so with a couple of underlings who were seen chasing Alice at the beginning of the movie.  One of the underlings has a copy of the newspaper and points out that Alice is alive and that she's reported some details of a murder to the police.  He's fearful that she'll soon remember everything that happened that day/night and identify them.  The underlings want to kill Alice now and be done with it, but Jay quashes their sentiment.  Apparently, Alice knows where "it" is and Jay wants to get "it" back before they do anything else.

Naturally, we're going to find out what "it" is later on in the third act, but that doesn't stop one of the underlings from trying to kill Alice now and end the movie in advance.  He goes to the hospital, mugs a doctor for a lab coat, and then sneaks inside via the basement.  Macaw, who's been staking out the hospital entrance, chases him all the way up to Alice's room.  Then, just as the underling is about to shoot Alice, Macaw points his gun and tells him to freeze.  The underling surrenders, but since he doesn't immediately drop his gun, Macaw opens fire and kills him.

That whole episode understandably jars everybody and makes it clear that there's definitely something to Alice's story.  You'd think that they'd put more officers on security detail as a result, but... no, not really.  If anything, they pay less attention to her.

There are a few more scenes around here where Dr. Kite and Alice get a bit more friendly, including some gratuitous side boob and at least one flashback featuring a topless Alice.  Y'know, just to get the T&A quota met.

But in terms of actual plot progression, nothing happens until Dr. Kite returns home one afternoon to find Jay waiting for him in his living room.  Jay threatens him with a gun and forces Kite to listen to his proposition.  Y'see, Jay bought Kite's $62,000 IOU from Vegas and offers to tear it up if Kite will help him recover "something" that Alice has stolen.  He also warns Kite that Alice is dangerous and unpredictable, trying to drive a wedge between their patient/doctor trust.  Jay gives Kite until the end of the week to figure it all out.

Then, for extra assurance, Jay's other underling (David Spielberg) goes to pick up Dr. Hobby, that specialist we mentioned earlier, from the airport.  The underling poses as a chauffeur, then murders Dr. Hobby on the side of a dark road and assumes his identity.  He comes to the hospital posing as the actual Dr. Hobby so he can manipulate the investigation and keep a close eye on Alice's recovery.

So, we have our timer, we have our stakes, we have our conflict.  This is where the movie should kick into high gear and get really good, right?  Maybe some other time.

What we end up with is an incredibly anemic second act with minimal, if any, tension.  Kite's therapy for Alice mainly consists of him badgering her and going, "Try to remember things," and then Alice will squint and go, "I can't!  I can't!  Oh, wait a minute... I'm remembering something now!"  And then she'll have an ambiguous flashback.

Gradually these flashbacks give us a little bit of insight into her past.  Alice was working as a dispatcher for Jay's private flight department and discovered some discrepancies with his flight logs, which covered up a trip he'd flown earlier that week.  Motivated by that oddity, she was snooping around his other records and uncovered something vaguely important on microfilm.  She hid the microfilm inside a bullet, and then took that out of the flight department in order to deliver to the authorities.  Along the way, she was also having sex with some guy named Clark, who was probably her boyfriend, but also possibly just a fling.

There's some more gratuitous sexuality, including more arbitrary flashbacks of Alice having sex with Clark, and at least one drug-induced hypnotherapy sequence in which she starts gyrating and rubbing herself on Kite's couch, because that's how classy movies work.  And then there's some scenes of Fake Dr. Hobby trying to lead everybody astray, including his ridiculous suggestion to relocate Alice to a secluded house where she can "relax" better.  The cops all seem cool with that idea despite the fact that people are trying to, y'know, murder her.

At one point, Clark's body is recovered and Alice makes a positive identification of it.  This leads to a dramatic confrontation between her and the police in which Drake demands more answers, but Alice can't remember anything.  So, Kite reveals - kind of for no reason - that Jay had threatened him earlier that week.  This brings the whole matter of Jay's manipulation of Kite to a close, and we never hear of it again.  So, uh... so much for our timer, I guess.

Eventually we wind up in that stupid secluded house (bad idea), where Alice is going to spend the night alone (worse idea) with only Macaw to serve as her security patrol (worst idea).  Almost as soon as Alice is alone, the power to the house gets cut and Fake Dr. Hobby tries to strangle her, demanding that she tell him where she hid the bullet.

Now, I understand the need for the movie to inject some drama.  Hell, it needs it by this point - the movie turned into a snooze about half an hour ago and hasn't been doing much to keep the tension up.  But this is the stupidest choice.  Fake Dr. Hobby is already in good with Alice and knows that she's gradually recovering her memory through therapy.  She even recognized him as one of the bad guys at first and he was able to downplay that to regain her trust by saying, "Yeah, memories are weird sometimes, it's not unusual to insert your doctor into them."  So, Alice will tell Fake Dr. Hobby anything he wants to know at this point just as a matter of practice.  All he has to do is be patient.  He can snatch that bullet at any time.

Or he can go and blow his cover for absolutely no gain whatsoever, so... yeah, sure, why not.  Fake Dr. Hobby Trumps all over himself and Alice runs away, straight into Dr. Kite's arms.

Now, in a brief scene just before this, Anita called Dr. Kite and suggested that she knows what's going on with Alice's memory.  She mentioned a movie theater to Dr. Kite, but didn't tell the audience anything else.  So, Dr. Kite's first move, after recovering Alice, is to take her to that theater.  There, they settle in to watch a nice movie... featuring the opening scene.

So here's where we get our big revelation in which everything is explained.  Clark was a DEA agent who Alice was not only sleeping with, but also assisting in an investigation into Jay's records.  Alice took some important incriminating evidence and smuggled it out of the flight department with the intent of handing it over to Clark at the movie theater.  They watched the opening scene together, handed off the evidence, and then left separately to go on their own ways.

However, once outside of the theater, Jay's goons cornered Clark and attacked him.  He told them, while dying, that Alice still had the evidence on her (very heroic, Clark, you piece of shit).  Alice witnessed his murder and ran, and the goons chased her thinking that she still had the bullet.  After getting into the accident, Alice conflated the first scene of the movie with the actual events she'd witnessed, and that's why everything in the first part of the movie was so jumbled up and weird.

Now that we're all on the same page, Fake Dr. Hobby shows up at the theater and kidnaps both Alice and Dr. Kite at gunpoint.  He forces them to the morgue where Clark's body was sent, and we find out - unsurprisingly - that Macaw has been in on the conspiracy as well.  Fake Dr. Hobby, Macaw, and Jay then hold Dr. Kite and Alice at gunpoint and demand that Kite do an autopsy on Clark's body to recover the bullet, which they all suspect he swallowed before he died.

Then, for no good reason, Dr. Kite turns into an action hero.  He distracts Jay and stabs him in the neck with a scalpel before running away with Alice.  The two of them hide in a supply closet.  Macaw follows them inside, and Dr. Kite throws formaldehyde into his face.  Macaw reacts as if his face is melting off, which I don't think is what would happen, but then again, I haven't ever worn formaldehyde, so who knows.  They steal Macaw's gun, and then Kite distracts Fake Dr. Hobby while Alice shoots him to death.

Drake and the actual cops show up to tally the body count and catch up on the movie.  Then Alice hops into an ambulance with Dr. Kite, who was shot in the leg, and they make out.

And what about Jay's criminal empire, Anita's shunned romance with Dr. Kite, Dr. Kite's crippling gambling addiction, and Alice's prospects for the future?  Sorry, can't hear you, the credits are rolling, bye bye....

What I Liked / Didn't Like

The Stranger is almost a case study in how not to use cliches.

You've got microfilm, you've got a shady mafia-type dude, you've got a down-on-his-luck protagonist with a $62,000 debt, you've got an amnesic damsel in distress, you've got an assassin posing as a doctor... these are all things that, when you take them by themselves, make you roll your eyes and go, "Okay, fine, we're doing that now."

But none of them have to be bad.  You put those in some steady hands and focus that story on a more likable protagonist, and suddenly you've got a compelling pulp mystery.  At every other turn, The Stranger feels like it's about to turn into a 1950s dime novel, and the most frustrating thing is that it never actually does.

A big part of the problem is that those pulpy elements are never given enough gravity.  Consider Kite's $62k debt.  That's a tried-and-true way to give your protagonist some motivation at the beginning of a story while also building up the audience's empathy: "Man, that down-on-his-luck guy reminds me of me."  What does The Stranger do with it?  Ignore it, basically.  Sure, briefly Jay uses that debt as a lynchpin to try to sway Kite, but it doesn't work.  Kite isn't trying to help Jay throughout the movie. The only time we get a sense that there are deadly forces after him due to Jay's purchase of his debt is at the very end when everything's building up to a climax.  So... what's the point?

Or even worse: consider the amnesia.  The way amnesia works in movies is that your amnesic slowly puts together clues about their own past, and it's because of their work in the present that they're able to succeed.  They're solving a mystery about themselves, and all the fun comes from the amateur sleuthing they're forced to do.  Maybe there's a huge amazing revelation sequence in the end where their memory comes flooding back, or maybe there isn't, but either way, the thing that very specifically does not help them out is their memory, because they explicitly do not have it.

That's the exact opposite of how The Stranger resolves itself.  Virtually all of the plot progression comes from Kite telling Alice, "Okay, now try hard to remember.  Is that not working?  Okay, try really hard.  No?  How about really, really hard?  Ah, perfect!  You just remembered another plot point!  Thanks, medical degree!"

That makes this a movie about amnesia in which amnesia is a total non-issue.  Nobody's fighting with Alice's condition and it's barely an obstacle at all.  They only need to leave her alone for a couple of weeks and she's fine.  Why bother?

By definition, a cliche is predictable and well-worn, so when you just insert one casually, it will have no consequence.  Your audience isn't going to suddenly go, "Oh, shit, now that there's ten cliches, this movie got interesting."  Cliches can't be thrown into your story like confetti.  They need to be embraced like a scarf.  Love what you are.  Live it.  Don't ignore your cliches, be your cliches.  Really get in there and own it, and then you'll have a fun movie.

....once you replace the protagonists.  That's another problem.  The actors are fine, so it's not a matter of bad casting.  It's just that neither protagonist is particularly interested in having a movie happen.  They both spend most of the movie acting like it's another normal day in life.  Oh joy.

Their flaws and inner conflicts need to be ratcheted up.  Alice shouldn't be just a flustered 1987 Bonnie Bedelia who would be modeling underwear if she wasn't laying semi-nude in a hospital bed - she should be a total nervous wreck, sweating and panicking and hostile to everyone who keeps triggering episodes.  Dr. Kite shouldn't be a well-meaning everyman who'd like to bone his new patient.  He should be a grizzled, cynical divorcee who's grown disillusioned with life, and maybe he's reluctant to do anything more with Alice at first besides say, "Put her in a straitjacket," but then he's forced into taking a deeper look at her case when the mob threatens him.  That's suspense.  That's drama.  Not, "Two attractive people pretend to be upset about ambiguous flashbacks while making goo-goo eyes at each other."

And yet, as much as I'm complaining about all this, I do honestly love quite a few elements of the story.

First and foremost: neither one of the protagonists is in law enforcement.  That is such a great boon to a story, a criminally overlooked and under-appreciated tool at a writer's disposal.  It's so easy to make the hero of your thriller/mystery story a cop or a private detective, because those are professions that make sense.  The second you put any twist on that at all, you make your story a thousand times more interesting.  Right off the bat, your protagonist will be out of their element and there will be inherent suspense as they try to figure shit out.  So why don't more writers do that?  Simple - it's harder to write a story about non-cops doing cop stuff.  You have to explain why they'd be pressured to solve a case, why they don't just call the authorities and be done with it.  But the payoff is always worth it.

In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that if The Stranger was the exact same movie, except that Dr. Kite became Det. Kite, and he was just some random cop assigned to protect Alice, I'd be dismissing this movie out of hand.  Instead of saying, "It's kind of a crappy movie with some great ideas," I'd just say, "Yeah, it's a typical bad crime movie."  The mere fact that The Stranger tries to do anything different at all makes it massively more interesting.

I also appreciated that they put a spin on Alice's background.  Not many movies deal with private aviation, so it's always pretty cool to see somebody working in that industry.  Alice could've been an ambiguous office drone, a lawyer, or - groan - an architect, but no, the filmmakers looked at all those choices and said, "BO-RING!  We want something new.  How about she's a dispatcher working at a drug dealer's private hangar?"  Now that's a cool idea.  Name one other movie about a dispatcher who discovers her boss is running drugs out of his hangar.  Just try it.

And above all else, I really liked the big twist of the movie when we find out that Alice's memories are corrupted and that the murders she remembers are actually just a scene from a movie.  That gets straight to the heart of memory and why it's such a weird foible of humanity.  Memories are fragile and malleable, easy to manipulate.  Memories are deceptive, yet wholly convincing.  When you make your movie about an amnesiac, you're explicitly calling attention to somebody's quest to uncover that which is the least substantiated part of their whole being - kind of a Sisyphean thing, honestly.  I absolutely love, love, love the idea of pulling the rug out from under Alice in the third act and going, "Yeah, turns out that thing you've been trying to figure out is a red herring thanks to the human brain being kinda stupid.  Sorry 'bout that."

I don't think the movie fully executed it properly.  The editing at the beginning is too jarring for the twist to play out as the surprise it should have been.  It cuts really obviously from a rural daytime scene to a nighttime city scene, so you know right off the bat that something's wrong with what you're seeing.  I'd have preferred a more subtle approach so that you as a viewer have no idea that you're watching a false memory.  Even so - the twist itself is absolutely wonderful.

So all of that puts this movie squarely in the Almost Good Movie category.  It's the perfect candidate for a remake.  You wouldn't even need that much of a budget - just rewrite the characters and dialogue a bit, get some smoother editing, and suddenly you have a fantastic thriller on your hands.  Let's hope some producer is reading and agrees with me.

And Now, a Brief Aside for Bad IMDb Trivia

Look at this.  Just look at this.

That is not trivia, guy.  It's a plot point.  How could you possibly confuse the two?

"Fun fact!  Citizen Kane was about a newspaper tycoon.  Andy Dufresne went to prison in The Shawshank Redemption.  And Darth Vader was Luke's father in Star Wars.  Isn't trivia fun?  I just love trading obscure movie trivia, don't you?"

You fucking idiot.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

The Stranger gets 40 obscurity points for having only about 160 IMDb ratings as of today.  I can't justify any pedigree bonuses as the cast and production crew isn't especially hipstery.... but maybe I can throw in 5 points for a pre-Die Hard Bonnie Bedelia.  That at least gives you a way to wedge this movie into a film geek conversation.

I'll also give it a 5 point bonus for relying on obsolete technology, as the plot hinges on the discovery of some microfilm.  And what the hell, I'll give it another minor 5 point boost just because of the vast number of cliches it uses, not the least of which is amnesia.

Unfortunately for those seeking hipster acclaim, there's nothing much else about this movie that qualifies for cred.  The plot isn't hipstery, it's not something you'd watch ironically, and the title isn't even particularly attention-grabbing.  If The Stranger was a better movie, this would absolutely qualify as a hipster movie.  As is, it's just a movie with some good ideas that's ultimately forgettable.  It'll probably stay obscure with a meager 55 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

The Stranger is available to stream at a cost, though if you go before it gets pulled for copyright infringement, you can watch it on Youtube for free.