July 13, 2008

The Stranger (1946)

At the young age of 27 years old, filmmaker Orson Welles had already directed a masterpiece (1941's "Citizen Kane"), and was on his way to bigger things. Unfortunately, his luck wasn't meant to last forever, and Welles' rising star would face the dark side of working for a major studio. First there was the troubled birth of Welles' second film, "The Magnificent Ambersons", which went over budget at a time when RKO Studios was in serious problems. To make things worse, Welles left production and headed to South America to shoot a documentary. His departure made RKO to take over the film and make it fit their demands, meaning the editing of over 40 minutes and a drastic change in the ending. So, disenchanted with the results of studio's interference (although his own stubbornness played a big role in this debacle), Welles wouldn't direct another film until 1946, where he returned to the director's chair with "The Stranger". But the shadow of studio's interference wasn't really out of the picture.

In "The Stranger", Edward G. Robinson plays Mr. Wilson, an investigator from the War Crimes Commission hunting for Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), an elusive Nazi fugitive. In order to find him, Wilson releases one of Kindler's former comrade Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) hoping that the weakened Meinike will lead them to their prey. To Wilson's surprise, Meinike's path takes him to Harper, Connecticut, where Kindler has effectively assumed a new identity as professor Charles Rankin, teaching at the local University and married to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), daughter of Supreme Court justice Judge Adam Longstreet. However, Wilson's mission won't be easy, as not only Kindler is perfectly hidden as a respectable member of Harper's society, but also kills Meininke before being identified and is willing to anything in order to keep his identity a secret. Now the only one who can help Wilson to unmask Kindler is the person that loves the former Nazi the most: Mary.

Based on a story by Victor Trivas, "The Stranger"'s screenplay was written by Anthony Veiller, and further rewritten (uncredited) by John Huston and Orson Welles himself, who tried to make the story to be more than a typical thriller. Because at its core, that's what "The Stranger" is, a conventional thriller with glimpses of film noir that lifts several ideas from Alfred Hitchcock's 1943's, "Shadow of a Doubt" (mainly the theme of a great evil hidden in a small town) and imbues them with that feeling of paranoia and suspicion that began to flourish during the Great War in a less subtle way than before. However, despite being kind of typical, "The Stranger" is not merely a distilled version of Hitchcock's classic, as the writers make a very conscious effort in making a complex portrait of the film's villain, carefully playing with the audience's sympathies, as even when his real motifs and personality are obvious since the beginning, this monster at times manages to be as charming as the "good guys".

As written above, Welles wasn't in the best position when he accepted to direct this film, and basically did it as a hired gun. Despite this (and the fact that Welles' final cut was also edited by the studio), there are many traces of Welles' vision in the film, as even when it wasn't his own material, he did put a lot of his creativity in the movie. While the most noticeable element of Welles' vision is probably in the script (in Kindler's complex persona), "The Stranger" also showcases Welles' film-making talent and style at several points, starting with the dynamic cinematography (by Russell Metty) employed to capture that small town atmosphere in a very natural, haunting way. Metty does add a lot of beauty to many scenes, making Welles' inventive set pieces (like the final confrontation) to shine and elevate the film from being a mere thriller. As expected from Welles, his directing of his cast is remarkable, and he manages to bring the best out of practically everyone in the cast.

As Kindler, Welles is simply outstanding, being frighteningly believable in both of his character's identities: as the charming and respectable History professor and as the zealous, borderline fanatical, ideologist of the Nazi regime. The remarkable thing, in my opinion, is how Welles makes so easy to feel sympathy for his character, with the same ease as the former Nazi convinces the townspeople that he is just a nice fellow American. As the cunning Mr. Wilson, Edward G. Robinson is equally superb in his performance as the man decided to do the impossible to uncover the identity of the man responsible of many heinous war crimes. Robinson owns his role with ease, and in fact his performance may had been the inspiration for several other famous lawmen in film. Loretta Young is very good as Kindler's unsuspecting wife, although to tell the truth, she is kind of overshadowed by both Welles and Robinson. A young Richard Long appears as her brother and truly manages to steal several scenes.

Like most of Welles' work after "Citizen Kane", "The Stranger" also suffered from the interference of studios unhappy with Welles' vision. This time such interference resulted in lengthy cuts done to the film, however, I must say that while the film feels kind of typical and too simple for a movie by Orson Welles, the cuts may had been beneficial, as the story is well, rather simple. While I'm sure that Welles attempted to make it better with lengthy back story, the complexity he added to Kindler was enough for the film to be more than a common thriller, and probably the added scenes would have interfered with the fast pace the story has. I guess that at this point in history, Welles' reputation may be "The Stranger"'s worst enemy, as one may expect something more original, or complex, but I think that even when "The Stranger" is far from being one of Welles' masterpieces (and if I'm not mistaken, this one was his least favorite among his films), there's a lot in its simplicity to like.

While "The Stranger" had very good results at the box office (Welles' only film to do that well), the legendary filmmaker was disenchanted with his work as a hired gun for a studio, and decided to keep fighting for his right for creative control. However, despite being a "minor work" and not completely "his film", the movie has a lot of Welles in it and it's quite an effective and enjoyable thriller. It's easy to watch "The Stranger" expecting another "Citizen Kane" or at least a "Touch of Evil", but that would lead to a disappointment, it's better to just sit back and enjoy watching the master doing his thing, which he does masterfully, despite not being really happy at doing it.


Buy "The Stranger" (1946)

Watch "The Stranger" (1946)


ackatsis said...

I've never seen this one. I'll have to check it out!

Guido said...

Great blog, found you by chance jumping from one to another.

I've always viewed Orson Welles as part of the rare breed of genius that we get to see only once every 100 or so years. To make such astounding pieces of work and make it look so easy, so mundane. His talent as a filmmaket was only matched by his internal demons, which is a shame, because I'm convinced we never actually got to see his best work, Kane and Andersons were just a sample of what he wad capable of.

J Luis Rivera said...

ackatsis: Mate, I bet you'll love it, perhaps even more than I did.

guido: From Cinevertigo perhaps? I'm actually new to Welles' work, but from what I have seen I'm afraid you are right. When something like "Kane" is your debut and the rest of your films are butchered at best, one can only wonder what kind of masterpieces simply weren't made... Thanks for your kind words!