5. Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955)
This classic thriller stars Spencer Tracy as John Macready, a one-armed World War II veteran who travels to the small southern town of Black Rock to find a man named Komoko. Upon arrival, he is threatened by the tough locale, particularly Reno Smith, played by Robert Ryan, who seems to run the town. Macready is told that Komoko was interned during World War II but it is clear that the town is hiding something.
After some snooping Macready discovers the horrible truth: that Smith and his anti-Japanese lackeys, killed Komoko brutally in a drunken binge and have covered it up for years after. Once Macready brings it up to the town, however, the elderly, one-armed man must fight for his life against the guilty party.
Although Bad Day at Black Rock featured a star studded cast, it almost didn’t get made. The studio was worried that the controversial racial themes of the film would be too risky. The leading man, Spencer Tracy, also almost had to back out due to his age and alcoholism.
Fortunately, it was completed and was a hit both critically and commercially, with the directing and acting winning numerous awards. This film’s take on the ‘stranger’ genre is intriguing, in some ways acting as a detective story as well as exploring the mindset of small town life and mob mentality. The film also features acting legends Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Walter Brennan in supporting roles.
4. Sex, Lies and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989)
The feature film debut of director Steven Soderbergh, Sex, Lies and Videotape was a controversial film that played a large role in popularizing the american independent film scene. The movie stars James Spader as Graham Dalton, the ‘stranger’ in this story. Dalton returns to his hometown after almost a decade and stays with his old friend John, played by Peter Gallagher, with whom he hasn’t seen since high school.
They have changed greatly since school and are clearly no longer compatible as friends and Graham gets an apartment, but not before making friends with John’s wife Ann, played by Andie MacDowell. Ann soon discovers Graham’s weird kink of videotaping women talking about sex and soon a domino effect causing the ends of many relationships starts.
Winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and numerous other accolades, Sex, Lies and Videotape became one of the most talked about films of the year. Its subject matter was controversial but intriguing and its characters were unsettlingly relatable. It is one of the more unique ‘stranger’ films on this list where the ‘stranger’ is not only the main character but the most moral of all the characters. Graham Dalton’s character is flawed, but his presence lets each of the other characters how messed up their own lives are.
The high praise that the film saw, especially given its low budget and small production was very inspirational to many independent filmmakers and changed the mindset for what could be considered an award winning film.
3. Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962)
Another debut film, this time from the great Polish master of psychological thrillers, Roman Polanski, Knife in the Water is a minimalist film, shot with only three actors, but is one of the director’s most effective. The film follows a couple who are driving on their way to the lake to go sailing.
Along the way, a hitchhiker jumps into the middle of the road and they almost hit him. They reluctantly agree to give him a ride where they discover that the hitchhiker, is just a young boy jumping in the street for fun. The couple take a liking to him and invite him on their boat for the day. What starts as a pleasant sailing trip soon turns out to be much more as the perils of nature start taking a toll on the two men’s behavior.
Visually striking and extremely thrilling, Polanski’s debut took the film world by a storm and gave helped give rise to the popularity of Polish cinema. In fact, it was the first ever Polish film to be nominated for the Academy Award for best Foreign Film.
The simplistic nature of the film, that it is almost completely set on a small boat, gives a very claustrophobic atmosphere to the film and adds to the increasing tensions between the stranger and the couple. Not only did the film jump start Polanski’s career but is remembered as a masterpiece in its own right and one of the finest debuts of all time.
2. Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
This classic samurai film by iconic Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa tells the tale of a ronin named Sanjuro who comes to a small village. The village in question is being torn in two by feuding clans led by men named Seibei and Ushitori.
The ronin, played by Toshiro Mifune, is constantly fought over by the two because of his masterly sword skills that no one in the village can match, although he simply toys with them, taking all of their bribes and gifts. His position changes, however, when Ushitora’s clever henchman Unosuke comes back to town and he discovers Sanjuro’s double crossing plan. The film culminates in a bloody fight that leaves the small village forever changed.
A perfect execution of the ‘mysterious stranger’ plotline, Yojimbo has been remade several different times in different styles including the two westerns A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone and Last Man Standing by Walter Hill. It was also one of the first Japanese films to really make a big impact on Western cinema, gaining Kurosawa many fans internationally.
The effect of the stranger on his surroundings in this film is probably the largest of any of those on this list, turning the entire town’s world upside down. It is also notable for the fact that the stranger is much more human and vulnerable than most of those who appear on this list. Kurosawa made a sequel to this film called Sanjuro which features more exploits by the ronin.
1. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
The second film on this list by the master of thrills Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train is one of the great directors all time best films, both for its chills and for its story. The film stars Farley Granger as Guy, a tennis player who wants to marry the girl of his dreams but is unfortunately already married to an awful woman. While on a train, he is confronted by a man who recognizes him and his problems and proposes a solution.
The man, named Bruno, will get rid of Guy’s wife if Guy would, in turn, kill someone that Bruno needs eliminated. The police would never suspect a thing because there would be no motive for either of them. Initially Guy thinks Bruno is kidding, but after his wife is found dead, he realizes that Bruno actually expects him to kill someone and things quickly spin out of control.
Although not as widely known today as some of Hitchcock’s later hits such as Psycho or Vertigo, Strangers on a Train is one of the director’s most well crafted and intriguing films. Like every good Hitchcock film, there is a terrific story that slowly ratchets up the suspense until the gripping finale.
The truly unique aspect of this film is the unsettling plotline and the disturbing way that this stranger furrows his way into the protagonist’s life, tormenting not only in person, but playing tricks on his mind also. Exemplifying the terror of unknown individuals and the sinister intentions they might carry with them, Strangers on a Train is a Hollywood thriller masterpiece that is as powerful now as when it was released.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.