Studio Guest: Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) – Blu-ray review
All’s Welles that ends Welles – even if it marks a rare director-for-hire gig for Orson, you can’t keep a great filmmaker down
(Orson Welles, 1946)
Once the legend had built up around Orson Welles of the maverick genius, forever fighting against the system, the critical knives were out for The Stranger: perhaps the only time in his career that he directed a film within the system. Indeed, Welles made the film precisely to show Hollywood that he could do it (not that it worked in persuading the studios to give him creative control after that). In the romantic notion of auteurism, The Stranger is a compromise and, therefore, a failure.
Except: if this is a routine thriller, it’s a routine thriller directed by a genius – and isn’t one of the tenets of auteurism that even a minor work is worthy of consideration? The Stranger is a fascinating example of Welles at work, taking advantage of studio resources (an amazing town square set) and cannily defending his work (the superb long takes, achieved – according to Welles – to prevent the studio from cutting anything). Throughout, the use of movement and shadow, the spatial relationships of actors to the camera and to each other, is clearly the work of the guy behind Citizen Kane.
Viewed thus, the running motif involving games of checkers is a witty commentary on the whole process of the film, especially the way that Edward G. Robinson deliberately loses in order to a) gauge the trust of the town clerk and b) give himself a berth from which to view the town – arguably the same strategy that Welles is using.
Admittedly, it can be criticised on narrative grounds. It isn’t anywhere near as dark or subversive as the greatest of 1940s noirs (and, of course, the stars recall two of those directly, since Edward G. Robinson appeared in Double Indemnity and Welles would follow this with The Lady From Shanghai), while Loretta Young becomes one of the era’s few actresses to play victim when everybody else was a scheming femme fatale.
Once the premise is established – Nazi hunter vs Nazi – it runs on well-grooved, fairly simplistic lines, notably the Nazi’s daft giveaway of denying that Marx was a German: “Marx was a Jew.” And even the potential for moral ambiguity in Young protecting her husband despite knowing he’s a killer pales against the more focussed variation on that theme in Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt.
Still, Welles’ technique provides the subtextual fuel. The opening sequence, as a Nazi is released in Europe and followed to America, symbolically brings Welles’ trademark shadows into suburbia. The bravura tracking shot that leads to murder is a stunning explication of the idea that evil can lurk within the everyday. And the then-unprecedented, still-shocking use of real-life footage taken of the gas chambers – including piles of corpses – achieves in power what it lacks in subtlety. Plenty of noir thrillers skirted around the war as a subject, but this makes clear how vital that generation’s experience was to the genre’s mood.
It’s also an interesting case study in heroes and villains. Robinson, of course, had made his name as Little Caesar and, by sheer force of personality, switched from villain to a symbol of moral authority. Enter Orson Welles: the wunderkind who was bored by heroism. Having already played the complex characters of Charles Foster Kane and Mr Rochester, here is his first outright screen villain. Ironically, Rankin/Kindler is too tactful to go O.T.T., but in the context of later crooks like Harry Lime or Hank Quinlan, the film feels like Welles being outed as the go-to guy for darkness.