John Sawyer (James Mason) is a washed-up barrister who has descended into alcoholism after his wife left him for another man some time ago. He now lives in his rambling town house, passing the time by listening to his old records and grasping a tumbler of Scotch as often as he can, limping when he walks thanks to an injury he inflicted on himself while drunk. He is not technically alone there, for he lives with his teenage daughter Angela (Geraldine Chaplin) who shuns his company and acts as if she has no parents at all, only interacting with her father when she really has to. But she really has to when one of her party acquaintances is found shot dead in their attic room...
Come the late nineteen-sixties, strange things were happening with movies, and with censorship easing and a new attraction to youth culture in the air, producers struggled to keep up. One film that did capture the interest of the time and heralded much of what was to come was 1966's Blowup, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and executive produced by a cultural commentator from Bulgaria, Pierre Rouve. He dabbled in cinema throughout this decade, and while the Antonioni effort was his biggest hit by far, he only directed one project, and Stranger in the House was it, a frankly pale shadow of the envelope-pushing previous success - but not without interest.
If Blowup still seems striking today, like it or not, Stranger in the House had a more curious provenance and place, having been based on a novel by Maigret creator Georges Simenon and played out like a mystery thriller, complete with "I suppose you're all wondering why I've brought you here"-style finale. These trappings were something from an earlier age and looked it, Mason a big name but not really headlining big movies in the way he used to, mostly taking smaller pictures for the money in the hope a juicier role might come along, so quite how many of ver kids wanted to see someone of their father's age as the hero of a film aimed at them was questionable at best.
Another aspect setting it apart from the Italian director's take on Swinging London was that he was prepared to go much further than anyone else, so his picture had a break for a raucous rock song, some nudity, and its own mystery that he dared not to solve, preferring to throw it out there as a discussion point on the meaning of existence and perception. You would not get that here, no matter that a stripper was central to the plot, she turns her back when she undoes her corset, and any philosophical endeavours were downplayed in favour of a distinctly unimpressed view of the younger generation, as many of these films would share: according to a lot of them, the youngsters were capable of terrible crimes, indeed they were attracted to them, culminating in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in 1971.
Rouve did not wish to go that far, and had the crime here the spark that reignited the lost affection between father and daughter, which was quite sweet, but sentimentality did not have a foothold in the story otherwise. The director served up some interesting choices that may not have rendered his work hip and happening, but it did make for arresting visuals: take Sawyer's flashbacks which, while in colour, were largely white with spots of black. Then there were the dimensions of the buildings the characters inhabited, vague at best and generating an oddly disorienting sense of space, emphasised by their settings in houses that had seen better days, a decay in what we could make out creating a feeling of a society falling apart - not dramatically, but casually, neglectfully. If this had been made the year later, the year of the student riots, maybe Rouve would have been more forceful, but here his idea of a cool signing was crooner Bobby Darin, who played the victim. The tension betwixt old and new was clear and made this compelling when the plot faltered. Music by John Scott.
[Stranger in the House is on Blu-ray from the BFI as part of their Flipside strand. Those features in full:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition G.G. Passion (David Bailey, 1966, 25 mins): a pop singer is hounded to death in this fab film featuring Chrissie Shrimpton and Caroline Munro
Good Strong Coffee (c1968, 2 mins): swingers swig coffee in this psychedelic ad for the black stuff
Tram Journey Through Southampton (c1990, 1 min)
Charlie Chaplin Sails From Southampton (1921, 1 min)
Southampton Docks (1964, 24 mins): marvellous mod machinery at work on a merchant vessel
Original theatrical trailer
James Mason in Conversation (1981, 86 mins, audio only): the actor discusses his career in an interview at the National Film Theatre, London
Newly recorded commentary by Flipside founders Vic Pratt and William Fowler
Illustrated booklet with new writing by Jonathan Rigby, Omer Ali and Antion Vikram Singh Meredith (formerly Vic Briggs of The Animals).]