Overlooked Gems: The Stranger (1946)
As respected as Orson Welles is as an auteur and massive icon of Hollywood (or anti-Hollywood perhaps), as an actor he has rarely been given the respect he deserves. Which is unfortunate considering the power of the performances he was capable of giving. Not only in the iconic films he directed such as Touch of Evil and Citizen Kane, but in a large collection of films he both directed and performed in purely as an actor for hire. One of my favorite performances by Welles is in the less than faithful adaption of Jane Eyre, as the embodiment of the Gothic hero.
He’s in similar form as an actor in the post war thriller The Stranger, finally out on DVD and Blu-ray. One of the lesser known films to be directed by Welles and far from perfect, the movie is as composed and compelling as his other films, if perhaps a bit more restrained, conventional and noticeably influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock. In many ways, The Stranger is Welles homage to the master of suspense, an odd mix of Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt (along with one major scene almost directly borrowed from Saboteur). Only instead of hunting for a killer, we’re seeking a Nazi who escaped Germany and is attempting to hide in plain sight in Connecticut. And Welles plays with our conventions even more with the casting of himself as the hiding Nazi and dark and often dangerous Edward G. Robinson as our true hero. Adding a bit of levity and comfortable predictability is beloved actress Loretta Young, who plays the unsuspecting socialite being trapped into a marriage to Welles, who wants only to piece together the image of a typical American life.
The Stranger is a strong movie because of the subtly employed by Welles to suggest the menace which exists even in a small town after World War II. Using the fears and unease created after the world was rocked by the atrocities of war and the Holocaust, the idea that a Nazi could exist not only in America but in an All-American town is chilling. And Welles plays with this by being somewhat stringent in how many noir flourishes he makes as director. Had he been more visually dramatic with the film, the film could have seemed either preachy or over dramatic in it’s style. But by showing such restraint, each moment hints at the evil Welles’s character committed and has true impact.
There are few moments as brilliantly done as Welles dinner scene with his three actors (along with Richard Long as Young’s brother) when Welles somehow defends his innocence while also showing the true darkness in his soul. It’s a work of directorial and narrative genius, with similarities to Hitchcock’s dinner scene with Joseph Cotton showing his true hatred of women in Shadow of a Doubt. But somehow, The Stranger ups the tension by avoiding the melodrama of that scene and keeping so much elser naturalistic.
Only as the film draws near a close and Welles’ mask falls off completely does he allow the film to embrace the visual aspects which mark it as a classic noir film. But those moments would never mean as much as they do, or be as effective as they are, if Welles hadn’t allowed for his earlier slow burn.
The Stranger is now available through Kino on Blu-ray and DVD.
For another perspective, check out Brandy’s review of The Stranger.
Images from The Stranger