I can never remember the name of this movie. I keep saying A Stranger At Home, At Home Among Strangers. But it’s more or less the same thing.
This is Nikita Mkhalkov’s film from 1974, 20 years prior to what he’s known for best here in the US: Burnt by the Sun.
If you’re familiar with some of Mikhalkov’s other films then you might expect a pretty nationalistic tone here. You’d be right. This would be an “ostern” film, or an Eastern Bloc western.
The film has an immensely annoying score from Eduard Artemev (who also, incidentally, did the score for Stalker, the best Tarkovsky film), and a Butch Cassidy-inspired opening. In fact, it’d be pretty impossible to watch At Home Among Strangers and not immediately think of George Roy Hill’s film; it just feels so…”inspired.” It’s a dialogue-free beginning, shot in faded black and white, with a lyric-heavy score emphasizing the on-screen display of friendship:
A side note: Butch Cassidy seems to me to be one of those films that isn’t fair to give ownership to the director. I mean, sure, that’s pretty true of all films, but isn’t a Tarkovsky film basically a Tarkovsky film? Butch Cassidy is as much a Newman/Redford film as it is a William Goldman film as it is a George Roy Hill film, etc.
Back to Mikhalkov. The basic plot here: a bunch of Soviets attempt to send a train full of gold to Moscow. Shilov (Yuri Bogatyryov), a Cheka (more on my understanding of that below) is in charge of guarding the shipment. Things go wrong. There are double-crosses. It gets confusing. The end feels rushed and unsatisfying (who was that left-handed guy in the end?).
Though there’s stuff to like about At Home… there’s also plenty of strangeness. Like, for example, why is there an obviously mentally ill “darker” character? He’s over-the-top, an absurd caricature. He actually does seem like he’s supposed to be a stereotype. Is this that foreign, untrustworthy influence?
Because this is set just after the Bolshevik revolution there’s a whole lot of “Red vs. White” talk. Lots of talk of “for the party.” Lemke (Alexsandr Kaydanovskiy) calls Shilov a Communist disparagingly more than once. (There’s also an insult, “Your Rothschild”…but that’s another story). Some of this is just a sign of the historical times. But it gets pretty on-the-nose after awhile and starts to feel like a party film.
A Cheka, as I understand it, is a member of the Lenin-created Soviet security forces. Pretty controversial, they were a violent group. Shilov’s a Cheka in this film. It seems to take a rather sympathetic view. Maybe that’s just one anomaly amidst some of his more dangerous, evil counterparts, but if so, it isn’t addressed.
Mikhalkov does have a pretty fantastic shot selection in here. Here’s one where the regional leader walks and talks. Mikhalkov and DP Pavel Lebeshev steadicam with him, catching him through the winding old building:
We enter darkness-
-and finally cut in, this time to an over-the-shoulder:
The over-the-shoulder then pans away, and now we’re suddenly in a room filled with people where there was no indication of people just a second before. It’s also magically turned to nighttime:
It’s a great transition. Clever and unexpected, and a way to keep the urgency of the planning going full steam ahead.
Here’s another great cinematic moment in the film. This is actually my favorite shot of the film:
It’s so kinetic. The camera moves fast. Mikhalkov isn’t afraid to go to absolute blackness and I really love the color temperature changes – blue, followed by red, followed by a pale white, etc. The shot feels entirely noirish, complete with trench coat and fedora, heavy shadows, and diffuse light flowing in through slats of the wall. It could be taken from Welles’ The Trial.