Appellate Judge James A. Stewart will sell no wine before its time.
Our reviews of Citizen Welles (published February 12th, 2002), The Stranger (2010) (published June 11th, 2010), The Stranger (1946) (Blu-ray) (published February 17th, 2011), and The Stranger (2010) (Blu-ray) (published May 28th, 2010) are also available.
"This obscenity must be destroyed. You hear me, destroyed."
If you're part of Generation X, chances are your first encounter with Orson Welles was in wine commercials. My first childhood inkling that the wine hawker was a gifted creative force came not from his movies, but from a cassette of the original War of the Worlds radio broadcast. That gripping hour led me to Welles's turn as The Shadow, and on to a love of radio and audio drama that continues to this day.
That first glimpse of Welles as a master of mystery has stuck with me as well. While I like and admire Citizen Kane, it's his noir career that holds my attention. Thus the release of The Stranger, a minor Welles noir, was the most exciting DVD news I've heard in months.
When The Stranger was released in 1946, Hollywood didn't have much confidence in Welles, who had fizzled in The Magnificent Ambersons. He needed a success, one that would send his career in an exciting new direction. Otherwise, Welles would soon be a stranger in Hollywood himself.
The Stranger is out on DVD as part of the MGM Film Noir Collection.
Facts of the Case
"Leave the cell door open. That's all there is to it. Let him escape," Wilson (Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity) tells his colleagues. Wilson's talking about Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne, Vertigo), a minor figure in Nazi Germany who can lead the authorities to Franz Kindler, one of the architects of genocide.
Wilson's colleagues listen. Konrad escapes, leading Wilson to the sleepy town of Harper, Conn. Konrad realizes he's being followed and, after leading Wilson on a merry chase, sets a trap and springs it, knocking Wilson flat with a gym ring at the local boys school.
Believing Wilson dead, Konrad goes looking for Kindler. He stops at the home of Rankin, who teaches at the boys school. Rankin isn't home, but his fiancee, Mary (Loretta Young, A Night To Remember), is.
The nervous Konrad catches up to Rankin at the school. "We mustn't be seen talking together," Rankin tells him. Konrad disappears fast. It's a good thing, since Rankin's immediately surrounded by a group of students on a paper chase.
When he does meet with Konrad, Rankin catches him up on the big news: "Guess what I'll be doing at six o'clock tonight. Standing before a minister of the gospel with a woman's hand in mine, the daughter of a justice of the United States Supreme Court." Rankin hasn't put his Nazi career behind him, though. "I'll stay hidden until the day when we strike again," he tells Konrad.
Konrad, meanwhile, has found God. He's also found death, since Rankin doesn't want anyone who can identify him around. But the man on the trail of Franz Kindler is alive and already suspects that Rankin and the Nazi are one in the same.
If you think Dial M For Murder started Hollywood's cat-and-mouse games, think again. Edward G. Robinson's Nazi hunter is relentless and observant enough to put Lt. Columbo to shame. Like Columbo, his determined nature is hidden by enough genial charm to quickly disarm locals who still think of Rankin as a stranger after a year in town. A game of checkers (he loses) is enough to elicit information from the local shopkeeper, and Wilson's already friends with Mary's family when Rankin and his bride return from a brief honeymoon. The character's trappings will be familiar to any TV-detectiv-show viewer, but Robinson's performance is shaped by a rare intensity.
With Robinson's performance serving as a better mousetrap, Orson Welles gets to play a tougher mouse. Welles never completely unravels; he always keeps his commanding presence. Welles shows the pressure Rankin/Kindler is under through small gestures and expressions for a performance of remarkable subtlety. The one obvious sign of the strain is his obsession with a personal project: restoring a long-dormant tower clock. It's also an obvious sign that he's Kindler, since Wilson knows of the Nazi's fascination with clocks. I believe that it also represents the sureness of justice, once the mechanisms are set in motion, as well. It also foreshadows The Stranger's memorable ending.
In contrast to Welles's controlled burn, Loretta Young's meltdown as Mary is swift and severe. As she's confronted with Rankin's past as Kindler, Young goes into hysterics, sobbing and angrily shouting at his accusers. It's a part that could have been unintentionally hilarious in the wrong hands, but Young is convincing as the loyal wife in shock.
How does Welles do as a noir director? Take his first and last encounter with Konrad, for example. The scene of Welles hurriedly burying the body is contrasted with the wedding preparations as the paper chase—with students relentlessly pursuing one of their own as he tosses paper about—provides both a direct threat and a frightening symbolic hunt.
Welles directed The Stranger with bold flair, foreshadowing his cinematic future. Characters are seen from above, in the background, or at a distance, keeping things nice and edgy as he forces viewers to pay attention to every detail. Overlapping dialogue mixes the murderous with the mundane. As with any good noir, shadows play an important role. When Rankin and Mary kiss, it's in silhouette. Heck, Mary even sees shadows in a dream she recounts. As a clock chimes, the troubled faces of Rankin, Mary, and Wilson are seen, tying the main characters together through a motif.
The cleaned-up transfer had a few flecks, but it looks and sounds pretty good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The lack of extras on The Stranger is a big disappointment. It's a transition between the artistic turns of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and noir masterworks Touch of Evil and Mr. Arkadin. That makes this little film pretty important. If you're a noir fan or a Welles fan, it'll be hard to hold out and wait for Criterion to do its magic.
Like The Shadow, Orson Welles knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men and uses that knowledge to advantage. Here, he creates a memorable battle of wills between himself and Edward G. Robinson. If it's what brought the world a great noir director, his commercial failure with The Magnificent Ambersons has a brilliant silver lining.
MGM is guilty of overlooking the possibility of extras, but The Stranger is free to go.
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