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Rachel and the Stranger (1948)

So much to write about that it might require two posts.  Let’s start with the delayed movie review.  I watched this last night but due to massive studying I just couldn’t write it out.  Today’s film is an odd little movie from 1948 called Rachel and the Stranger.  To preface, and many a classic film fan will understand, what do you expect from a film that stars both William Holden AND Robert Mitchum?  You should get pure awesomness.  I mean Holden and Mitchum are two of the sexiest classic film stars out there (that’s just my opinion).  The problem is neither actor had hit their peak so the movie is a minor stepping stone in their careers and it feels it.  The plot is just odd, and ends with a resolution that just feels like it’s been tampered with due to Code constraints.  For a movie starring Holden and Mitchum, I expected a lot more.

When farmer David Harvey‘s (William Holden) wife dies he realizes he needs to find a new woman to raise his young son and keep up the house.  He buys a bondwoman named Rachel (Loretta Young) to be that woman.  Rachel meets resistance from David’s young son Davey (Gary Gray) and David himself doesn’t like Rachel.  When David’s best friend Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum) arrives and starts hitting on Rachel, David starts to question his relationship with the woman.

Oh my William Holden!

Let’s get the prelims out-of-the-way.  I’d originally heard about this movie during the Bill Holden Birthday Celebration on TCM.  I’d also read about it in Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young (a book which I’m STILL giving away so please enter already) and since it stars two of my leading men I had to watch it.  The film came out two years before Holden made Sunset Blvd and was Mitchum’s follow-up to Out of the Past.  Suffice it to say that both men look fantastic!  I mean Mitchum looks young and gorgeous and it was weird seeing Bill Holden with longer hair and generally not being the charming womanizer.

That was one of the bigger problems I had with Rachel and the Stranger.  Holden doesn’t seem to have cultivated that charm and charisma that we’d see in The Moon is Blue and Sabrina.  Here he’s trying to play David as repressed, conveying the emotion he feels internally.  Sadly, Holden fails at this and just comes off as cold and bland.  He’s not particularly dynamic and it allows for Mitchum to easily overshadow him which pains me to say.  It’s established early on that Jim and David are rivals for women as David’s wife was originally courted by Jim before she married so within the first five minutes you know they’ll be fighting for Rachel herself.

Davey…the spoiled brat in the coonskin cap

A perfect segue into my next issue with the movie…the plot.  I mean the entire plot surrounds the buying and selling of a woman.  I understand it’s set in the Old West but they do everything they can to make Rachel pretty much the poster child for human trafficking.  She’s labeled a bondwoman, which according to is a female slave.  David only buys her to keep his house up and raise Davey and tells her upfront she’s to bring his meals to him and that’s all their relationship is.  Even during the “auction” scene David asks questions about Rachel to the people selling her, never to Rachel herself.  If this is the Old West why are there no African American slaves?  The only slaves are apparently white women?  And Davey!  Oh this kid was a brat.  I understand he lost his mom but he tells Rachel outright she’s only a slave and she’s worthless….Wow.  Rachel is learning to shoot but I’d be doing target practice on Davey if I was her.

The entrance of Jim Fairways is where the movie’s plot ramps up as we now develop a love triangle between Jim, David, and Rachel.  Or at least that’s the movie’s intention.  I saw no love triangle to be had because it’s obvious Jim deserves Rachel.  I love both Holden and Mitchum equally but damn is Mitchum smooth in this film!  He sings, he treats Rachel like a human, you know the little things.  Of course David starts to feel left out when Rachel, Davey, and Jim start singing and having fun.  We’re supposed to believe that David is connected to his former wife, seen with his constant playing with the metronome that the wife sent out for, but it just seemed like one big dick measuring contest (pardon my French).  Jim turns on the charm because he knows Rachel doesn’t love David and vice versa.  Watch the scene where he tries to tell Rachel how to shoot a gun, “it’s like caressing.”  Swoon.  Jim even says to David “you don’t treat her like a man treats a wife.”   Here’s a bit of Mitchum singing from the movie for your enjoyment:

Obviously David just doesn’t want Jim playing with his toys!  David becomes indignant at the mention of Jim buying Rachel from him, but yet David had no trouble buying Rachel in the first place.  Let’s say it all together HYPOCRITE!  The entire plot of the movie devolves into everyone seeing Rachel as property and that made my blood boil because even though the movie is set in the Old West, it was made in 1948, Hollywood couldn’t find a way to balance the two?  Rachel eventually gives an impassioned speech that details everything I wanted to say about how the men are idiots fighting over her like property.  Loretta Young displays genuine anger at her plight in life and it’s one of the few moments of genuine emotion I saw throughout the film.  Especially since Rachel has suffered in silence throughout the majority of the movie.  If only she had stuck to her guns!

Rachel tells David he’s an idiot and even then David isn’t man enough to admit his faults.  He simply calls Rachel “ungrateful” because he at least “marred her legal.”  Well isn’t that big of you David?  So not only are you an ass but you’re pretty much admitting that Rachel shouldn’t go with Jim because you legally own her.  Eventually Rachel tells them to stick it where the sun don’t shine (okay it’s Loretta Young so she doesn’t say that) and leaves with David, Davey, and Jim all trying to convince her to go with one of them.  By this point it’s laughable that if she has to go with any man that she would pick David, I mean he’s a total ass.  Jim may leave you high and dry eventually but you’d have fun with him.  Sorry, gotta get my mind out of the classic movie gutter.

Loretta Young

The two rivals for Rachel’s heart each give a speech to lure Rachel to pick them.  At least that’s the intent.  Jim’s speech is a love speech where he tells her that he wasn’t the type to settle down until he met Rachel and all.  It’s romantic.  David, well David tells Rachel she should come back because “the boy” and “the dogs” will miss her.  Jim appeals to her as a freaking person!  Now, you can try to tell me that David is a bad character to express his feelings but seriously!  He never changes his technique, even at the climax of the film, Rachel just learns to deal with him!

By the end there’s an Indian attack because with female white slavery I guess Indian attack is the next logical jump.  Rachel is saved by David…and I guess all that repressed love comes out but I just felt that the movie was ending and they needed her to stay married.  David drops the metronome, apparently chucking the memory of his new wife and smashing it to the ground.  What a great way to end the movie.  “Honey, I’ve treated you like crap for 90 minutes, let me just trample this last remaining memory of the wife I’ve loved for said 90 minutes and we’ll get to me apologizing for that white slavery business.  Oh, the movie’s over….okay!”  The ending is just so treacly and fake that it ruined any connection I had.  David’s love comes from out of nowhere and of course Rachel falls for it after giving that speech!

I understand the constraints of the time period but who believed this felt genuine?  Rachel and the Stranger is just okay.  It’s far from perfect but it’s not a complete trainwreck.  I’m just sad considering it’s a movie starring both Holden and Mitchum, neither one at their best.  It’s a rare film to see both actors in, it’s just not as great as I figured considering.

Grade: C

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

18 thoughts on “Rachel and the Stranger (1948) Leave a comment

  1. I loved your review. I watched this a few years ago on TCM for all the reasons you mentioned (Holden & Mitchum). I could live with the human trafficking plot because it was pretty true that poor people, women and orphan children mostly, were treated that way. However the love story was insulting. You summed it up perfectly.

    • Yeah I do understand that there was no way to create a happy medium with the story but still, a movie with those two leading men should have been a classic of epic proportions. Thanks for reading!

  2. Great review. I’ve been thinking about watching this film whenever I could get my hands on it, now I know that if I do watch it (and I will eventually, it has Robert in there, I just can’t not watch it no matter how bad it is), I’ll know what to expect.

    By the way, you’ve an awesome blog.

    • Aw thanks for the comment! Yeah, can’t complain about a movie boasting two of the hottest men in classic film history. Especially surrounding their constant needs to assert who is hotter.

  3. The part of the film that I enjoyed the most is was when, Rachel does everything she can to win over her new family. This all changes when Jim, his (very charming, handsome) friend arrives and shows the neglected Rachel some attention. David starts to realize that she means far more to him than he thought and the trouble begins….

    Thank you for posting the pink ribbon on your side bar. I can not believe that I came back to so much welcoming support, from my fellow bloggers. ((Hugs)).

  4. You people have this movie all wrong. It is a romance/love story: Love grows in rocky places and ways. Big Davey, widowed, wants a woman to take care of the place and teach his son. We are in Ohio territory in 1815-20. Rachel is a bond woman. Her father was in debt and sold her to pay his debts. It was very legal to do this. (From 1750s on white men, women and kids could be sold to pay off debts of self and family members. (This was British law, continued in the colonies, and US until 1860.) Rules in different states & territories freed a bond servant at marriage. Some settlers bought a husband/wife. There were more men than women until after the Civil War. Jim and Big Davey are long-time friends who came to farm the land. Both dragged the spinnet from the stockade to the farm. Dead Susan was loved by both of them. She picked Big Davey. Jim became a hunter. Ripe apples on the tree indicate Susan died Aug/early Sept. The moral code at the time is marriage: “Can’t live together as man and wife without marriage. Aint fitting.” Parson. Father & son are still mourning Susan. They spend the fall, winter and early spring in that cabin – just the 3 of them. Spring brings Jim, back from hunting. He meets Rachel and starts to think of settling down himself. Rachel has been trying to fit in to Big Davey’s world, but he didn’t appreciate her efforts. Jim sees her assets. Big Davey wakes up. Rivals. Both men act dumb and she turns both of them down and begins walking to the stockade. Both chase after her. When the smoke from their cabin lights the sky, Big Davey has to go back – at least for the stock. Rachel could have gone to the stockade with Davey but chooses to go back with Big Davey. Obviously she feels something for Big Davey and wants to protect their homestead. When the smoke clears in the morning Big Davey & Rachel are alive, together and into being married. Jim goes off chasing the Shawnee and son Davey goes down to the creek to see if any fish are in the trap. He calls Rachel ” Ma” Rachel, Big Davey, Davey are now a family, Their lives will go on..
    This movie is a realistic picture of what life was like on Northeast frontier. Songs and vocabulary were of that time and place. Women did not have the rights we enjoy today. Females were daughters, wives, mothers, widows. Law said they were property of fathers & husbands. They did not own their own children. Economic survival for a single woman was extremely difficult. There were not many opportunities for a woman unless she had financial backing. How do you pay for a place to live, food and clothing? Men had control of whatever money the family had. Few young women had any money of their own. This is 200 years ago, in a very different America. You have to view the story in the time and place it depicts. You can’t put 21st values in 1815 realities. It helps to know American history too.

    • I certainly see your point, and I always try to blend the context of the movie – both the narrative and the time period it was released in – with today. Rachel and the Stranger suffered from a lot of other problems, but being dated is a crucial problem that’s going to detract a lot of newer viewers. While I don’t begrudge those who enjoy it, there’s just as many people out there who won’t be able to ignore the plot issues. Thanks for reading!

  5. I enjoyed everything about this movie. How anyone could rate it a C is beyond me! I found the plot entirely credible. People’s feelings are exactly the same, just the ways they express them might be different from one generation to another.

    I thought the acting was very good, and Robert Mitchum’s singing voice was outstanding. If it were a cornball movie as some critics have written, he would not have said numerous times that it was one of his favorites. And don’t forget, audiences loved it.

    • I’ve rewatched this a few times since writing my original review and I’d certainly rate it higher now. Still far from my favorite Holden movie, but it’s good.

  6. Rachael (Loretta Young) was an indentured servant. We had that in the US too, a bit different than slavery. (1) you volunteered for it as a was to get passage from Europe and a piece of land (historically 25 acres, so I have read) and a cow after you completed it. or, (2) you owed someone a debt, or your father died before he could pay off his debt and the kids had to repay the debt. The premise of the movie is sound. That stuff happened back then. Beyond that he (William Holden) was a lonely widower in a small frontier community. Pickings for women were historically slim. Plausible enough to be entertaining.

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