Produced in 1946, sandwiched between The Magnificent Ambersons (or, arguably, Journey Into Fear) and The Lady from Shanghai, it’s worth noting that The Stranger, Orson Welles’s shadow-drenched anti-fascist noir, was the only film that was considered a legitimate box office success in the career of the legendary filmmaker and actor. Completed four years prior, Citizen Kane had earned back the sum of its budget and marketing campaign but had failed to bring back suitable profits to be considered a hit. Following The Lady of Shanghai, which was completed in 1947, Welles would find it harder and harder to release his films as he intended and would often be found with no control over the artistic scope of his projects. On other occasions, his work was flat-out denied distribution.
It’s funny and ironic to think now that The Stranger is sometimes neglected in Welles’s canon of masterworks (let’s face it, very few weren’t) and has been relegated to a space in Welles’s second tier, where Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil have often been placed. Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and F for Fake would grow into unappreciated masterpieces and works of great personal importance to Welles in their unique aesthetics and invigorating storytelling structures. All three are certainly worthy bids for Welles’s chief triumph and boast a singular quality that has yet to be duplicated in any other film, but it would be both naïve and profoundly shortsighted to suggest that The Stranger didn’t come from a deeply personal creative impulse.
Released a little over a year after the cessation of fighting between the Allied Forces and Germany, The Stranger offers haunting insight into the fascist mind and never shies away from the reality that the National Socialist party was fascism’s most successful and devastating incarnate but certainly not its last. It’s a point made early on by Professor Charles Rankin (Welles), a would-be professor and track coach at a small Connecticut university, as he takes a stroll with an old friend, Konrad (Konstantin Shayne). Rankin, in reality, is the chief architect in the extermination of the Jews, known in his homeland as Franz Kindler, who has escaped prosecution and punishment by assuming a new identity in America. Konrad, a colleague and ardent admirer of Kindler’s work, is released from prison and used as a sort of honing beacon for Kindler by Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a Nazi hunter for the United Nations War Crimes Commision.
Aware of Wilson’s presence upon the very sight of Konrad, Rankin plans to shed his identity once more, a process that includes the murder of Konrad and numerous other deeds of cold, methodical cruelty and cowardice. Perhaps the most devious of these acts would be his marriage to local schoolteacher Mary Longstreet (the great Loretta Young), who also offers Wilson an instantly recognizable key into trapping Rankin. Refusing to believe that her husband could be Kindler, Mary slowly becomes the central focus of The Stranger, with the dueling egos of Wilson and Rankin playing out on either side of her. As Rankin charms her and initially invokes a romantic “wrong man” fantasy, culled from their history together, Wilson shows her footage from labor camps and photos of the architects of the Holocaust, including Kindler. In this, Mary becomes not only an allegory for the German people but a proxy for any person who believes that Fascism could never take root in North America; that evil, if there is such a thing, would be easily recognizable from the outset and would never appeal to the common person.
Welles’s rebuke to that kind of grossly optimistic thinking takes a grand emotional toll that is realized with devastating effect when Rankin admits to Mary that he is, indeed, Franz Kindler and she seems to form an even deeper devotion to him in her state of delirious horror. One need not bring up the myriad of current-day instances to see how this dark and lively noir universally reverberates within any given culture, but Welles’s devotion to character, style, and atmosphere overrules any moment when the message seems in danger of ruining the film’s peerless fluidity. Scripted by Anthony Veiller, Victor Trivas, and Decla Dunning from Trivas’s own story (and with some uncredited assistance from John Huston and Welles himself), The Stranger unfolds with the utmost precision, paced brilliantly and sharply edited by Ernest Nims, replacing Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons editor Robert Wise who had started his own prolific directing career by 1944.
The “unendurable” stench of fascism, as Welles referred to it, is palpable from the feverish opening of The Stranger on through the battle of wits that Robinson and Welles, both in top form, engage in. The film is further elevated by the great sense of community and family that Welles details in the small Connecticut town. Superb supporting turns lend excellent nuance to the merciless cat-and-mouse game being played out at central court, including Philip Merivale as Mary’s father (the local judge), Richard Long as her unsure brother and the wonderful Billy House as the checkers-playing owner of the local drug store. “All your needs are on our shelves.” House’s Mr. Potter insists to his customers, a sentiment that in itself mirrors the loftier, empty promises that were made by Hitler and are still made by a litany of tyrants who need only need open ears and desperate hearts to ensure their iron-fisted rule over the land.
It's a sad reality that not all great films released on Blu-ray get the master treatment that labels such as Criterion can ensure, and The Stranger is a reminder of this fact. This is not to say that Film Chest's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is unwatchable or does major detriment to the film, but there's an overall softness and lack of texture to this release that is disquietingly close to the DVD version. But, then again, the Blu-ray cleans up the DVD image thoroughly and features far more impressive black levels, which are essential to the shadowy world spun by Welles. Where we start getting into trouble is when the audio comes into play, which, again, does not make the film unwatchable but has some evident flaws. Chief among them would be the overall transfer, in 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital, which features several instances of damage that result in a high "hiss" sound and an uneven mix between the dialogue and Bronislaw Kaper's excellent score. Thankfully, however, the dialogue remains largely clear and crisp through the film, making for an adequate but far from perfect viewing experience.
This is about as barebones as it gets nowadays: In addition to a DVD copy of the film, only a theatrical trailer and restoration demonstration are included.
Orson Welles's feverish, politically uneasy noir remains an outstanding achievement; would that the same could be said about Film Chest's barely sufficient transfer of the film.