The swinging 60s thriller time forgot: Stranger in the House

Starring James Mason, the latest addition to the BFI Flipside collection has rarely been seen since its release during the Summer of Love. It’s crime thriller based on a Georges Simenon novel, dazzlingly dolled up for a swinging Britain.

Vic Pratt

Publicity lobby card for Stranger in the House (1967)

Publicity lobby card for Stranger in the House (1967)

Listen up, kids! London wasn’t the only swinging city to feel the searing heat of the 1967 Summer of Love. Away from Carnaby Street, far from the King’s Road, it was all happening outside the capital too, with the kids running wild as far distant as whacked-out Winchester and psyched Southampton.

At least, that’s the impression you’ll go away with after watching the Hampshire-shot Stranger in the House. This fab, unfairly forgotten crime thriller from that yardstick year is a dark drama of murder, mystery and generational conflict, dazzlingly dolled up in fab, flamboyant made-to-measure Mr Fish threads, now finally emerging from oblivion to belatedly strike a pose as it makes its UK home entertainment debut in a deluxe dual-format BFI Flipside Blu-ray DVD edition.

Directed by Pierre Rouve, it stars that great trouper James Mason, delivering an old pro’s masterclass in scenery chewing and scene stealing, effortlessly engrossing and thoroughly convincing as an alcoholic barrister at odds with his with-it daughter – played by a groovy Geraldine Chaplin in one of her earliest starring roles. Drunken daddy is reluctantly lured out of his crumbling old house to defend her banged-up boyfriend, who’s been arrested on a murder charge.

Stranger in the House (1967)

Stranger in the House (1967)

Though the film was in fact based on a venerable 1940s crime novel, set in France, and penned by the great Belgian writer and Inspector Maigret creator Georges Simenon, director Rouve – who adapted the text and wrote the script for the film – updated it and relocated his torrid pan-generational tale of elderly decadence, hypocrisy and youthful depravity to the booming British Isles.

The juvenile delinquents of Simenon’s original manuscript had jitterbugged to ‘java’ jazz records and were led astray by the violence they saw in gangster films, but, in Rouve’s with-it rewrite, the spoilt rich offspring of the local civic dignitaries freak out to the latest beat-group platters, frug it up in a seedy black-walled underground discotheque, naughtily puff on spliffs, and rampage around the docks nearby in their swanky high-speed motorboat. Meanwhile, the supposedly respectable old folks mull over all yesterday’s tomorrows, seek solace in their overstuffed bankbooks, contemplate another vacant visit to the local strip club or drink themselves into oblivion.

Eye-poppingly shot shortly after Antonioni’s era-defining Blowup (1966), Rouve’s marvellously of-the-moment drama also features a modish fashion model, here seen posing around Winchester Cathedral. The whole peculiar package, designed, according to the trailer, “for the ‘in’ set – living for their kicks, kicking for their lives” – is a time-travelling retro film fan’s delight.

Contemporary critics, however, were not much impressed with Rouve’s debut feature as a director. While they all spoke highly of Mason’s virtuoso turn as the belligerent barrister, most missed Geraldine Chaplin’s powerful performance, didn’t appreciate imported American singer Bobby Darin as a sleazy ship’s steward looking for kicks, and ignored the presence of a great supporting cast.

Most surprising of all, they barely noticed a terrific turn by up-and-coming Ian Ogilvy, as a rebellious rich-boy up to no good (playing a part somewhat reminiscent, in fact, of his more famous role the same year in Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers). And yet it is hard to miss him: he certainly wears some eye-catching bang-on-trend ’67 fashions, including an unforgettable statement piece: a bold brown ‘teddy bear’ coat specially chosen for him by Mason himself – as later recalled in Ogilvy’s autobiography:

“[I don’t like the kid’s coat,’ [Mason] said one day, so filming stopped while I, director Pierre Rouve and Mason himself all went off to a gentlemen’s outfitter shop and Mason sat in a chair while I modelled a number of overcoats for his approval. ‘That one,’ said Mason, pointing at the hideous fuzzy brown thing I was wearing at the moment. I wore that ugly coat for years, just because James Mason had approved it.”  

Stranger in the House (1967)

Five decades further on, that fuzzy coat, and the neglected film it fuzzily fizzes in, looks kind of fascinating. For all its foibles, Stranger in the House is a terrific time capsule – loaded with ephemeral imagery that has become precious and poignant period detail, beautifully shot on location by Academy award winner Ken Higgins – who’d scooped up an Oscar for his work on Georgy Girl (1966) – and stylishly soundtracked by rocking Newcastle R&B hitmakers The Animals.

Also included on the disc – among an array of entertaining archive extras – is G.G. Passion (1966), David Bailey’s ‘fairytale’ short film of a past-it popstar hounded to death by the forces of conservatism. Also written off at the time by past-it critics, it features a striking array of 60s ace-faces, including Chrissie Shrimpton (sister of Jean) and Caroline Munro (before her days as a Hammer scream-queen).

Shot by legendary Primitive London lensman Stanley Long around the highways and byways of the Big Black Smoke in 1966, this cynical, stylish, self-reflexive take on what was becoming an increasingly corporate pop music biz is another essential artefact, an indispensable aid to a more rounded understanding of youth-cultural days of yore.

Dig it! 

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