Judge Gordon Sullivan notes The Stranger came clothed in a DVD case.
Our reviews of Citizen Welles (published February 12th, 2002), The Stranger (1946) (published August 6th, 2007), 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.
"In Harper, there's nothing to be afraid of."
When it comes to Orson Welles, it's hard to ever know the truth. Of course we have facts about the man and his life, but he was such a raconteur that it was impossible to ever pin him down to a single version of events from his point of view. Depending on the era, the interviewer, the time of day, and the level of wine in his cup, Welles was given to everything from fond remembrance to scathing denunciation of many of the people and events in his life. We're right, therefore, to be a bit suspicious of his evaluation of his own work. He claimed that The Stranger was one of his weaker efforts, and he seemingly disdained talking much about it. Of course, compared to Citizen Kane, the pulpy joys of The Stranger are certainly weaker, but thanks to the wonderful The Stranger (Blu-ray) from Kino, everyone can appreciate the definite pleasures the film affords.
Facts of the Case
Set just after World War II, The Stranger is the story of Charles Rankin (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane), a professor who has recently located to a small town. He seems like a normal guy—until Wilson (Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity), a government agent looking for Nazi war criminals comes to town. Then it's a battle of wits as Wilson tries to uncover Rankin's past, exposing his heinous crimes.
Citizen Kane is, of course, Welles' undisputed masterpiece, a modernist film that revolutionized cinema while feeling relevant even today. The Magnificent Ambersons is a flawed masterpiece, showing Welles' growth while still being marred by studio-imposed cuts. Welles disappeared from behind the camera for a while, partly due to failed projects (It's All True) and partly to pursue other activities (like his radio appearances and acting roles). He would resurface later with noir-ish thrillers that still stand amongst the best of the genre, like The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil.
The Stranger is something of a bridge between the early and the late Welles. Its story of a Nazi criminal pursued by an investigator into small-town America looks back to The Magnificent Ambersons and its setting while also prefiguring Welles increasing association with the thriller (including not only the films he directed, but the classic The Third Man).
Whatever else you can say about him, Welles was never involved with uninteresting projects. Even those that didn't come to fruition are always fascinating. In that respect, The Stranger can be added to the list. It has four credited writers, with un-credited script changes by John Huston and Welles himself. It might seem like just another post-war thriller, but it's actually centered on themes near and dear to Welles, who was a committed anti-fascist, working with Roosevelt and supporting American propaganda efforts during the war. It also gave Welles a chance to be the bad guy, which he always appreciated. In addition, when we learn that Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the role of the investigator, it's even easier to see what drew Welles to the project.
Of course, that wasn't the film he made. Instead, Welles had to make a fairly by-the-numbers studio film. He didn't have final cut and had to personally insure the production against overages. He also pre-conceded any argument that might arise between his vision and the studio. If that takes some of the typically Wellesian polish off the film, what it leaves in its wake is a well-crafted thriller that hums along quickly, ratcheting the tension with every scene.
Welles is perfectly cast as the villain. He's one of the few actors who can pull of a totally believable small-town prep school professor and Nazi war criminal. Edward G. Robinson is no Agnes Moorehead, but his gruff persona suits the character. Konstatine Shane is fun as a former associate of Rankin's before he became Rankin, while Lorette Young provides a perfectly innocent ingénue for Rankin to dupe. I can't help but miss other Welles regulars like Joseph Cotton and Akim Tamiroff, but it's hard to argue with the cast that Welles assembled.
It's also hard to argue with The Stranger (Blu-ray). Due to legal difficulties, the copyright for the film was not appropriately renewed, meaning The Stranger fell into the public domain. Most films in the public domain are not well cared for, and The Stranger is no exception. That is, until now. Thanks to the intervention of Kino and the Library of Congress, we've got a beautiful source for this 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. There's some minor print damage, but that's all there is to complain about. Contrast is strong throughout, with deep blacks and lots of resolution in the mid-tones. Detail is strong, with an appropriate grain structure and no serious noise reduction to make things overly-smooth. The LPCM 1.0 mono track isn't quite as impressive, but that's the fault of the source and not this audio track. Dialogue is always clean and clear, but it can come off as flat at times, while the score doesn't have the clarity and range we've come to expect from soundtracks.
Extras, though, are where this release really shines. Things kick off with a commentary by film historian Bret Wood, who goes into great detail about the film's production history and context. He also addresses the film's place in Welles' career, which is great for those more familiar with his famous work. Next up is a 21-minute short film, "Death Mills," a film directed by Billy Wilder intended to show the horrors in the concentration camp footage. We also get four of Welles' radio broadcasts, totaling 90 minutes, three from 1942 and one from 1946. Finally, a stills gallery and the film's original theatrical trailer round out the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you don't care about Orson Welles or 1940s thrillers, then chances are The Stranger won't be the film for you. It's far from the first film I'd choose to introduce someone to Welles' genius, so those new to his work should go back to Citizen Kane or forward to Touch of Evil.
If you're an Orson Welles fan, this is an essential disc. Even if you've bought the film before, the audiovisual upgrade is worth paying for, and the extras are icing on the cake. If you're not familiar with the film but just want a good postwar thriller, then this version of The Stranger is certainly worth a rental.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
Review content copyright © 2013 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.