Now on Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ Overlooked Masterwork ‘The Stranger’

The Stranger

For some reason, Orson Welles’ 1946 film The Stranger has been maligned by devotees to the master filmmaker as well as Welles himself. There’s this misguided notion that the film is too conventional and insufficiently Wellesian in its construction, all of which I vehemently disagree with. The Stranger is a lean thriller by Welles, who took the job on as a hired hand after a couple of notable box office failures. Even as a hired hand, Welles has a stark vision that livens this suspense tale of a Nazi war criminal hiding out in a quaint Connecticut town. As with all of Welles’ finest works, The Stranger features stunning black and white photography and judicious use of camera movement and angles while Welles shuns attempting to play with the film’s timeline as it unfolds in a purely linear fashion. After over four decades in public domain, meaning that all available copies on home video were from inferior prints, The Stranger lands on Blu-ray with a new edition from Olive Films, one that ensures a level of visual quality for Welles’ unsung masterwork previous unavailable.

Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) works for the United Nations War Crimes Commission, searching for fugitive Nazis who haven’t faced justice for their horrific crimes against humanity. One particular Nazi, Franz Kindler, has eluded him and Wilson schemes a plan where he’ll release Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a former associate of Kindler, in the hopes that the freed war criminal will lead him to the whereabouts of the infamous and nefarious Franz Kindler. The plan works and Mr. Wilson follows Meinike all the way to Harper, Connecticut. The aging Nazi finds his old comrade posing as a professor under the name Charles Rakin (Welles). But the former Nazi in hiding knows that his old partner has just led investigators to his location and murders the only living man to know his true identity, hiding the body in the woods on the outskirts of town. Meanwhile, Charles Rakin is set to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice. Mr. Wilson is undeterred in his search for Franz Kindler, and his persistence causes a number of troubles in the quiet town of Harper.

Based on an original story by Victor Trivas and adapted by Trivas and Decla Dunning, the Oscar nominated screenplay by Anthony Veller (with uncredited work by Welles and John Huston) crafts a double-pronged thriller. On one end is the tale of murder with a genocidal war criminal loose in a small American town. Then there’s the doomed romance with Mary in love with a coldblooded killer who has never been honest with her about himself. The story itself is somewhat reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but it’s Welles’ direction that elevates the material beyond the duplicitous nature of its central character. The legendary director utilizes every inch of the frame, with precise edits and camera movements presenting so much vital information through entirely visual means. The use of angles and shadows that Welles employs in The Stranger with cinematographer Russell Metty should be evidence enough to dispel the notion that it was Gregg Toland who secretly directed Citizen Kane.

Much like The Stranger is underrated, Orson Welles doesn’t get enough credit for being such an astounding actor that had no problems with portraying unsavory, detestable characters. That Shakespearian sense that Welles brings to all of his work shines through in his performance as the masquerading Rakin, and when the character is pressed by the stress of his situations Welles brings forth an exaggerated sense of dread that speaks loudly without a single word uttered. Welles was a master of visual storytelling and that talented extended all the way into his acting, and works so well opposite a subdued Edward G. Robinson, who plays it cool compared to Welles’ showy performance.

One scene that sticks out is a dinner table scene where Mr. Wilson joins Charles Rakin and Mary along with her father (Phillip Merivale) and brother (Richard Long). In a casual conversation, Charles lets it slip that he doesn’t consider Karl Marx to be a German because of his Jewish lineage, a verbal red flag that all but ensures Mr. Wilson will not abdicate in his pursuit of Franz Kindler. It’s a little moment that looms large in the story, a minor slip of the tongue with major consequence. The Stranger also came at a time where there wasn’t a two sides look to idea of Nazism or fascism. There’s not an attempt to understand where Franz Kindler was radicalized or any notion of making the character the least bit sympathetic. The Stranger was also one the first American films to feature archival footage from concentration camps. It’s a factor that allows cinema to reflect its time and be a tool for historical preservation, as we’re seeing a resurgence of neo-Nazis the content of The Stranger reminds us that there can never be any equivocation with Nazis.

Welles may not have cared too much for The Stranger, but he wasn’t always right with his strongest opinions. After years of inadequate DVDs that failed to bring the black and white majesty to life, Olive Films have issued a Blu-ray that makes The Stranger look better than it has in decades, perhaps allowing film lovers to give this film its rightful due after years of being overlooked and brushed aside. Sure, The Stranger isn’t quite Citizen Kane, but nothing else is as that’s a singular work without peers. For a post-war thriller, The Stranger holds up incredibly well and serves as a reminder that Welles could craft a visual narrative unlike anyone else of his era, truly redefining cinema as we know it to this day.

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