After the box-office failure of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and a bitter fight with RKO over the allegedly out-of-control production of “It’s All True,” Orson Welles’s wunderkind status was in jeopardy along with his career behind the camera. But when directorial jobs proved briefly unavailable, Welles filled the 1943-1945 frame with a series of other pursuits: as a magician in his Mercury Wonder Show tour, a political campaigner for FDR, a syndicated newspaper columnist, and a radio host on his very own “Orson Welles Almanac.”
All along Welles swore he was perfectly willing to walk away from Hollywood outside of the occasional acting gig to pay the bills, but by 1946 his true calling proved irresistible. Welles agreed to direct a film for International Pictures and vowed that he would prove to everyone that he “could direct a standard Hollywood picture, on time and on budget, just like anyone else.” In a shock even to his boosters, that’s exactly what he accomplished.
Welles took over “The Stranger” (1946) knowing that final cut would be in the hands of super-producer Sam Spiegel (credited here as S.P. Eagle) and that he would have to hew fairly close to the screenplay by Anthony Veiller from a story and adaptation by Victor Trivas. Authorship of the results has remained in debate over the years with Welles sometimes claiming credit for the scenes he liked best, and other times stating that little in the film was truly his.
The push-pull between auteur and studio is evident at times. In an early sequence where Welles clearly used an elaborate tracking shot on a crane, the editor butchers the meticulous choreography with a dissolve that skips impatiently to the end of the movement. Yet if “The Stranger” isn’t pure Welles, it’s got enough of the Welles touch to matter, from the shadowy opening sequences of a Nazi criminal snaking his way to America (Welles’s original opening sequence was much, much longer than what wound up in the final cut) to the carnivalesque ending replete with giant statues with menacing swords whirling around in a mechanical danse macabre.
“The Stranger” was released immediately after the end of World War 2 and promised/threatened viewers that the Nazi menace was nowhere close to extinguished. In fact, the Nazis may be living among us! Third Reich mastermind Franz Kindler wiped out all traces of his existence before fleeing to small-town Connecticut and posing as prep school teacher Charles Rankin (Welles). Rankin’s post-war plan is proceeding without a hitch: he works in a position of authority where he can mold young minds and he is about to wed the lovely Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a very respectable local judge (Philip Merivale). The marriage will provide him the cover he needs to wait until the Third Reich rises from the ashes and he can strike the enemy from within.
Fortunately for all freedom-loving Americans, the implacable Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator from the War Crimes Commission, has his own plans. He releases a two-bit Nazi thug named Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) and waits for him to scurry back to his master, Kindler. The film doesn’t truck in mystery. Kindler’s true identity is revealed almost from the start and the tension stems from the pressure cooker applied by the laconic, pipe-smoking Wilson who arrives in town and lurks around the periphery like a proto-Columbo waiting for Kindler to crack.
Welles might not have had control in the editing room, but he indulged his penchant for long takes with the able assistance of ace cinematographer Russell Metty, producing some of the vintage deep focus footage that has made “Citizen Kane” a staple on both critics’ lists and academic curricula. Welles also benefited a nifty set, a convincingly immersive vision of a sleepy suburb dominated by a gigantic clock tower that provides the stage for the gaudy and enjoyable climax.
Kindler/Rankin is Welles at his most bug-eyed, but it’s simply not possible for Welles to over-act; there was nothing bigger than the real-life personality and his stentorian voice commands respect even in caricature. The plot might go off the rails at the end (that’s the part Welles doesn’t like to take credit for) but it’s so deftly staged the absurdity hardly matters. The heavy-handed, occasionally tone-deaf editing matters a bit more, but not enough to undermine the final product.
“The Stranger” came in both under budget and on time, but it wasn’t a watershed moment. Welles’s vision simply could not and would not be easily contained by the studio production system and he spent the rest of his career in a constant struggle for funding. For one project though, Welles played it more or less by the rules and with a minimum of off-set drama which might partly explain why he never fully embraced the movie. If Welles wasn’t satisfied with the results, understand that his standards were a tad bit higher than most. And a lesser Welles is a greater almost-everyone-else.
The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
“The Stranger” lapsed in to public domain after its copyright wasn’t renewed in 1973 and there have been plenty of shoddy releases in various formats over the years. Kino Lorber’s high-def transfer is “mastered in HD from archival 35 mm elements preserved by the Library of Congress” and it’s a huge upgrade over any previous version I’ve seen.
It still has its problems. The opening sequence shows signs of damage (flecks and debris) and though the rest of the film looks much better, there’s still a vertical scratch visible in several scenes as well as a bit of distortion along the right edge of the image. Overall, though, the image resolution is sharp and really shows off the rich black-and-white photography by Russell Metty. Shadows are quite dense and contrast is strong throughout. The fine grain structure is very pleasing as well.
The linear PCM 2.0 track is fairly crisp though it has a few moments where crackle and other distortion is audible, but that’s no doubt a product of the source material. The sound design has an appropriately hollow, echo-like feel to it in a few sequences. No subtitles are provided.
Kino Lorber has included several interesting extras.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Bret Wood, author of “Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography.” Wood argues that “The Stranger” deserves a more prominent place in Welles’s oeuvre and balances shot analysis with production history.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Wilson shows Mary gruesome footage from Nazi concentration camps, making “The Stranger” the first studio feature to have such images. The Blu-ray includes the film “Death Mills” (1945, 21 min.) from which those shots were taken. The informational short was produced by Billy Wilder for the State Department and was originally shown to German citizens as proof of Nazi atrocities.
The disc also includes four of Welles’s war time radio broadcasts. “Alameda” (Oct 25, 1942, 29 min.) is the story of a Nazi takeover of a small Canadian town. “Brazil” (Nov 15, 1942, 29 min.) is the debut episode of the program “Hello Americans” and features an appearance by Carmen Miranda. “War Workers” (Dec 14, 1942, 14 min.) casts Welles as the announcer protagonist who steals the microphone from a Nazi spy who thinks he has infiltrated the Lockheed-Vega aircraft plant. “Bikini atomic Test” (June 30, 1946, 14 min.) gives Welles the chance to pontificate about the upcoming atomic bomb test as well as as other political issues.
We also get a trailer for “The Stranger” as well as trailers for two other Kino films and a Stills Gallery with 16 images.
For anyone familiar with the movie, don’t you think the last line “Good night, Mary. Pleasant dreams.” is pretty damned vicious? I won’t spoil the ending here (though you can see it coming for a while), but it’s not exactly appropriate. Oh well, poor Mary’s decision-making skills suggest she isn’t destined for happiness no matter what.
This Kino Lorber high-def release helps rescue “The Stranger” from a series of subpar public domain releases and boasts several solid extra features as a further selling point. This is an essential release for any Welles fan.