The Stranger, 1946
Dir: Orson Welles
August 31, 2009
It's easy to understand why this was the only commercially successful film Orson Welles ever made, and yet, his cinematic genius is still able to show through even though it was probably just a "director-for-hire" project, which is why Welles eventually disowned it as an artistic piece. After the jumble and studio mess that is The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), a noticeably restrained Welles created a clever cat-and-mouse game film that delivers some great acting and Welles' trademark cinematic touches, but still plays by all the rules. After being out out films for four years, it's pretty obvious that he wanted to get back in the game, even if this was probably not a film he would have directed for his own benefit.
Noir, as Welles will again show in Touch of Evil (1958) (which is a better film), is the perfect place for Welles to slip into "mainstream" skin. Using a relevant subject (and not befuddling, slightly aloof ones like his previous two features) where the Nazi war criminal Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) is released in hopes that he will lead war commission investigator Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) to much bigger Nazi fish Franz Kindler (aka Charles Rankin) (Orson Welles) hiding out in small-town America, Welles was able to work under budget and deliver on time, despite the fact that the most interesting part of the film was cut by 30 minutes against his wishes. This sequence, where Meinike is released from prison, features the use of German Expressionistic lighting, in particular, the use of silhouettes, which is key in creating the right mood immediately. I really liked this scene because the visual representation of a sleazy Argentina really catches the eye while only handing you bits of information. After Meinike and Wilson arrive in America, Welles uses a swooping high-angle establishing shot to give a God's-eye-view of the town, which he uses often, while others scenes, like where Meinike gets the upper hand on Wilson in a school gymnasium, show us that the king of low-angle shots still has his touch. Welles' love of long-takes is also evident in The Stranger during a four minute scene between Meinike and Kindler in the woods. This leads into one of the best sequences of the film, in which Kindler frantically covers up a dead body in the woods, while several of his students are participating in a paper-chase (gayest thing ever) nearby. The use of dramatic music and Welles' panicked, paranoid facial expressions create palpable tension in this scene as the teacher is almost caught by his pupils.
Welles is not only able to wring tension out of action sequences but also through dialogue-driven scenes as well. At one point during the film, Wilson and Kindler meet face to face over a family dinner. Kindler delivers a chilling monologue that starts off cordially and then, as he lets the facade slip ever so slightly, he expounds on Germany and the Nazi philosophy. He claims that the Germans are not waiting for another Messiah a la Jesus but rather another Hitler. It is a powerful speech delivered with zeal by Welles (who is definitely best as a villain) that anticipates his famous monologue in The Third Man (1949) (while not a Welles directed film, is still pretty good). The looks that Welles and Robinson exchange during this scene make it clear that the two men have no illusions about who they really are, but proper dinner decorum keeps them in check during the meal. It is what is not being said that is just as telling as what is being said. Very Welles.
Story-wise, The Stranger lacks originality. It is essentially a reworking of Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), with Uncle Charlie being substituted by Franz Kindler. Both films are set in postcard perfect small town America, feature the villain launching into a psychotic monologue while sitting at a family dinner table, and climax with a dramatic scene atop a bell tower. The scene is still awesome in that cinematic way, where Welles gets skewered, but is a pretty big rip-off. Edward G. Robinson's Wilson is a terriblly stereotypical Noir character which is held up by a giant of the genre. No other characters, even the devoted wife (Loretta Young), are really worth mentioning.
The Stranger performed quite well at the box-office, earning an Academy Award nomination for, ironically, Best Original Screenplay. More importantly though, it proved to Hollywood that Welles was a bankable director, and paved the way for his next film, the incredibly awesome The Lady from Shanghai (1948). It might be said that this is the best thing about The Stranger, but it still has it's merits. This is Welles on a studio leash, which he had to deal with all the time when working in America. Partial genius, however, is better than no genius at all.