HD Cinema Classics // 1946 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 17th, 2011
The most deceitful man a woman ever loved!
"They searched the woods. I watched them, here like God, looking at little ants."
Professor Charles Rankin (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane) may seem like an ordinary college professor, but the truth is far more sinister: Rankin is actually Franz Kindler, the Nazi mastermind who played a large role in the very darkest chapters of German history. Rankin is currently residing in Harper, Connecticut, and has just married a young woman named Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young, The Bishop's Wife). Alas, Rankin has finally been found by Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson, Two Weeks in Another Town), an investigator from the U.N. War Crimes Commission. Wilson is certain that Rankin is indeed Franz Kindler, but actually proving this will be a difficult task. Can Wilson find the evidence required to bring this man to justice?
Is there any figure in Hollywood history who has suffered more artistic frustrations than Orson Welles? Though Welles directed a considerable number of films over the course of several decades, very few of his efforts were untainted by the time they hit theatres. Sadly, The Stranger is no exception to this trend. Coming on the heels of the famously sabotaged The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger was more of a "hired gun" project for Welles, as the actor/director had a good deal less input than usual on the script and casting.
Welles had originally wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the lead role of the U.N. investigator, but the studio declined and thrust Edward G. Robinson upon him. Even more frustratingly, some two reels of footage Welles had shot for the film's opening act (depicting the ill-fated German Konrad Meinike attempting to find Kindler in South America) were tossed out and are now thought permanently lost. Welles would later go on to declare The Stranger his least favorite of the films he had directed.
Despite these problems, The Stranger still holds up rather well some 65 years later. Though perhaps somewhat less ambitious than Welles' best work, at least it never feels like an unfinished film. This is a slick, polished studio thriller with some welcome injections of artistry and philosophical thoughtfulness piled on courtesy of Welles. So perhaps it is a little disappointing as an Orson Welles film, but it is unquestionably impressive by almost any other standard.
The forced casting of Robinson actually worked out very well, as his performance is worthy of being mentioned as one of the actor's finer moments. Mr. Wilson is presented as a man of deceptive intelligence; a homespun charm masking his immense knowledge of literature, history, philosophy and...well, just about anything. As depicted by Robinson, Wilson smoothly ingratiates himself with the citizens of Harper and collects information without making any waves. Considering that Robinson seems quite amiable for much of the film's running time, his moments of stern anger are particularly effective: a scene in which he confronts Kindler about his crimes against humanity is strong stuff.
The Welles character is also presented as an intellectual; very much the reserved, professorial type who unintentionally wears his expertise on his sleeve. Rankin is the sort of guy people automatically turn to when they need an expert opinion. The role affords Welles an opportunity to turn in an atypically restrained performance; the actor masterfully captures the character's obsessive-compulsive tics beneath the almost wax-like exterior. In a clever touch, Welles only smiles during one brief moment in the film; a scene in which he vows to murder another character. This man is stiff and nervous by default, but the idea of making someone suffer brings out traces of Harry Lime. No wonder the man devoted his life to developing ways to kill people on a mass scale.
Welles' voice can be heard in the script on occasion, especially during a handful of moments in which Rankin and Wilson discuss weightier subjects. However, his distinctive sense of artistry is most sharply felt in the direction. Welles supplies us with a generous load of compelling shots throughout the film, along with enough striking visual symbolism to supply a dozen movies. The action-packed finale on the clock tower is vintage Welles, with one shot after another proving ingeniously stylish and occasionally profound.
Discussing the 1080p/full frame transfer for The Stranger is a bit complicated, I'm afraid. In contrast to other black-and-white films from the era that have been released (Casablanca, The Third Man), The Stranger looks quite bad. However, it must be noted that the folks at Film Chest were working only with a 35mm print of the title rather than any source elements or an internegative, so we can't exactly expect the movie to sparkle. The good news is that The Stranger looks much better than it did on the previous DVD releases. The level of detail is okay and blacks are actually quite solid throughout. The bad news is that this "restored" print has completely wiped out every bit of grain, leaving us with a smooth, soft, flat picture that often looks like it's been bathed in a little Vaseline and milk. Bright scenes in particular look very overblown. Audio is similarly underwhelming, with the inventive Bronislaw Kaper score sounding a bit pinched at times. While most of the dialogue is crisp and clear, there are noticeable instances of hissing, crackling and popping. The only supplements on the disc are a brief restoration comparison and a theatrical trailer.
The most problematic performance in the film comes from Loretta Young, whose portrait of Rankin's troubled wife is just too melodramatic in contrast to the rest of the film. While Welles occasionally directs at a feverish pitch, most of the performances effectively contrast this with their easy-going naturalism. Young's work too frequently verges into unintentional parody, occasionally deflating the dramatic tension of the movie.
In addition to featuring a pair of strong lead performances and boasting compelling direction from Welles, The Stranger captures America's uneasy post-war atmosphere as effectively as any noir thriller I've seen. It's a fascinating product of its time; a movie made when the nation was exhausted of war and quietly nervous about the possibility of its return. Though the HD transfer isn't anything terrific, this reasonably-priced Blu-ray is still worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: HD Cinema Classics
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1946
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Restoration Comparison