Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray Review: Rachel and the Stranger (1948)

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Long before he looked at a woman's changing role in society after the advent of the sexual revolution and the Vietnam war found Jane Fonda's housewife in Coming Home questioning just which of two very different men she should be with, screenwriter Waldo Salt crafted another love triangle film that broke new ground in its no-nonsense depiction of a woman's role in society in the old west.

Adapted from the short story "Rachel" by Howard Fast, 1948's hit Rachel and the Stranger was one of the few westerns to take an honest look at the treatment of women who were bought and sold into indentured servitude.

A rough around the edges western with a sweet, slow burn love story at its center, the film from veteran RKO house director Norman Foster stars William Holden as Big Davey Harvey, a farmer in the market for a new wife and mother for his wild son (Gary Gray) after he loses his beloved bride to fever at age twenty-eight. Purchasing a new bride from the parson (played by Tom Tully), Big Davey is content to treat the "kinda thin but not bad lookin'" twenty-five year old Rachel (Loretta Young) like just a "bondwoman" but the parson tells him it wouldn't be proper for her to live with him unwed so Davey marries her out of Christian duty.

Uninterested in any kind of relationship because as far as he's concerned, he already had and lost the great love of his life, it's only when his friend Jim (Robert Mitchum) arrives, eyes the beautiful new woman, and offers to take her away that Davey gives her a second look and must figure out where he stands before it's too late.

Efficiently directed by Foster, whose background helming everything from Charlie Chan to Mr. Moto movies for RKO serves him well here as the love story moves into exciting western action territory in its final act, this fine character piece is elevated by the charisma of its leads, especially Young who imbues Rachel with an intelligence and mischief sorely needed by the otherwise straightforward plotline.

Given a few tongue-in-cheek lines which, for a majority of the film had been reserved for either Gray or Mitchum, Young has a terrific, still relatable moment when, after Mitchum asks her if she can play the spinet piano and Holden answers for her in the negative, she ignores it and admits she can. Startled by the discovery, Holden asks her why she never told him that before and she says simply, "you never asked," in a line read sure to hit home with women everywhere.

Lighting up in her eyes at Mitchum as he chides her with the inquiry, "is Big Dave the all-devastative and devoted husband he makes himself out to be?" Young's spark of interest lights a fire in the film, which, after struggling to absorb Holden's rudeness to his new wife, gets noticeably lighter whenever Mitchum enters the frame. And although he is a very supporting player in Rachel and the Stranger, his presence helps the work pick up the pace again after it threatened to go a little stagnant, thus ensuring Rachel never loses its way.

Working considerably well with the director, Loretta Young — who some believe started her famous swear jar for blasphemous curses on the set of this one for Holden and Mitchum — reteamed with Norman Foster a few years later on her TV series The Loretta Young Show, where he helmed twenty-nine episodes.

Rushed to theaters by RKO in order to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Robert Mitchum's marijuana drug bust and short jail sentence, much like 1948's other Mitchum starrer Blood on the Moon, Rachel and the Stranger turned a tidy profit for the studio.

A very welcome new take on the old west which dares not to sanitize the fact that women were bought and sold into slavery, although it's turned into a love story in Rachel, you have to give Salt, Fast, RKO, Foster, and Young credit for daring to explore this terrain in the first place. Given a marvelous transfer to Warner Archive Blu-ray, along with the unusually noirish western Blood on the Moon, which suggests that Mitchum was drawn to intriguing projects at the height of his fame, if you're looking for something that expands the western myth beyond riding and roping cowboys to include more of the female gender, this is one Stranger you'll be glad you brought home.

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