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April 11, 2011

Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)

Here is another amazing re-master from HD Cinema Classics. This collection is pretty oddball, featuring everything from Al Adamson’s most questionable head-scratcher (CARNIVAL MAGIC) to this, Orson Welles most accessible and readily-available classic, THE STRANGER (1946). Although it has long been probably the easiest to find of Welles’s films, I have never seen such a crisp and beautiful copy. For this Orson Welles freak, it was positively a reason to cheer.

 Buy The Stranger DVD or Blu-ray

Many Welles-ophiles consider THE STRANGER to be Welles’s sell-out movie, made to prove to Hollywood producers that he could deliver a standard Hollywood product on time and on budget. Although there were the usual battles over the final edit of the movie between Welles and studio bosses, The film did become a box office success and for a time did help Welles’s standing with Hollywood studios. The screenplay is credited to Anthony Veiller, but it is commonly reported that Welles and John Huston completely rewrote it. But slick Hollywood fare though it may be, it is not typical of the normal studio post-war dramas, and all of Welles’s trademark bravado is on display. It is a terrific movie, and stands very well on its own.

Welles plays the titular role of Charles Rankin, aka Franz Kindler, escaped Nazi, the architect of the Final Solution, who has effectively erased his own identity. He is in hiding in Connecticut, about to marry the daughter of a supreme court justice, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Meanwhile, Nazi hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) allows a former Nazi associate Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) to escape prison in the hopes he will lead him to Kindler. Kindler sniffs out the plot, however, and murders Meinike before his identity can be discovered. Wilson inserts himself in the community and continues to dig, his sole clue being Kindler’s own fascination for the tireless and cold precision of antique clocks.
What follows is Welles’s angriest game of cat and mouse in his own unmistakable stylistic world of shadows and moral ambiguity. The low angles and use of shadows is pure Welles, as are the levels of moral questions with no easy answers. Few characters in a Welles film are without some sort of contrition. The first time Wilson meets Rankin a.k.a. Kindler, he considers him “above reproach” because of his rant against the German character, with genocide as the only real solution. This actually seems acceptable to Wilson until he remembers Rankin also saying that Marx was not a German because he was a Jew. Who but a Nazi, Wilson theorizes, would make such a distinction. The fact that Rankin is also endorsing genocide seems to have escaped him altogether, perhaps because he himself feels the same way.

Welles is excellent as the cold-blooded Rankin/Kindler, ever scheming to cover his tracks. Robinson turns in one of his typically superbly crafted and controlled performances. And Loretta Young nearly steals the show with her masterfully subdued portrayal.

Fans of my own films will recognize the name Franz Kindler as that of the cold-blooded Nazi scientist whose brain lives on in a glass tank in THE CRAWLING BRAIN. My little homage and nod to Welles. That is how dearly I hold THE STRANGER, and how indelible is the stamp it has left on my personal artistic psyche.

Welles has been gone for over 25 years now, and yet his legacy continues to grow. Still, there seems to be a sizeable crowd of those bent on maligning his reputation as the consummate artist who re-defined cinematic grammar and refused to buckle to the commercial establishment whatever the odds. In being such a rebel he clearly did cut his own artistic throat, since so few of his films remain in the definitive versions authorized by the auteur himself. But equally clear to me is that the legion of young filmmakers and enthusiasts today touting the so-called Independent Movement with cries of “fuck Hollywood,” and “do it your own way” should have no greater role model than Orson Welles. The fact that CITIZEN KANE is still at the top of the list of nearly every “greatest films ever made” list should be reason enough to honor the man. But beyond that, the handful of works that remain as Welles intended, and the dozen or so more that continue to be studied even in their truncated and bastardized forms, should be evidence enough that Welles was, and still remains, the purest and most enduring of American cinematic visionaries. Art over commerce, no matter the odds.

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