Very entertaining, purist action movie, with offbeat casting
With literally thousands of European action films cranked out in the '50s and '60s, a fan of the genre gets used to fairly routine plotting and even casting -usually "one from column B" mix & match of name talent from the various co-production countries.
THE STRANGERS was a very pleasant surprise, holding up extremely well over 40 years later thanks to its abstracted locale and storyline, and casting against type for a change.
As the female lead Senta Berger was certainly a superstar, lending A talent to a B picture. But the male cast eschews big names, or even medium-size names, and the movie is all the better for it.
Earning top billing is French character actor Michel Constantin, who began his career literally at the top, co-starring in Jacques Becker's action classic LE TROU, probably the finest film of its type. But he was never a box office draw or matinée idol, so it is refreshing seeing him as the tough as nails Senta-protector, living out in the remote desert near Socorro.
Well-dubbed in English, the film doesn't make clear whether Socorro is in New Mexico or in Spain, but I suspect it was set in America but shot in Spain. Constantin's co-star who actually has the film's largest role is Julian Mateos, from Spain, a journeyman actor who really outdoes himself here. He gives an explosive, well-judged performance of a type one associates with action star Tomas Milian, and in fact one would have expected Milian or a bigger name to have been cast instead. I had seen Mateos in several Westerns, including RETURN OF THE SEVEN and SHALAKO, but his work here is a revelation.
Film begins with a sleek heist scene, notable for its Melville-styled gangsters in their suits and skimpy-brim hats (including Mateos) as well as its ruthlessness. Mateos gets away with a bag of diamonds, which he plans to fence in Hong Kong, but after a well-staged car chase he ends up in the desert, finding refuge in the remote cabin of Constantin and Berger.
They don't even have electricity, cooling beverages in a deep well, and doing the washing by hand. All the details, plus the remote location, make for interesting scenes and help give the film a timeless quality. I soon realized that it determinedly stood apart from the time it was made, hence was not dated at all, compared to the way more recent films seem so absurd with their instantly out of date various sized cell phones, TV monitors and other "hip today, square tomorrow" technological crutches.
Movie quickly becomes a war of wills -who will get and keep the upper hand. Constantin knows from press coverage that Mateos is the criminal on the run with the diamonds and he insists on splitting them 50/50, or else.
Flies in the ointment are a dogged local sheriff Blade anxious to catch Mateos (well-played by Hans Meyer) and various hit men being dispatched by the Syndicate to get Constantin for a years-ago misstep on his part, which caused him & Berger to be hiding out.
Final reel twists are clever and keep the pot boiling, though for some reason the film's finale is rushed and too pat for my tastes. Perhaps journeyman filmmaker Jean-Pierre Desagnat ran out of gas, or budget, or just inspiration.
Its ending aside, this is engrossing entertainment from an unlikely source. Berger is stunningly beautiful, even without any glamorizing elements like fancy costumes, and fans will appreciate her extremely sadistic scene of whipping and beating up Mateos after he steps out of line. All in all, a real treat for traditional B movie fans.
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