The Stranger is the comeuppance Hollywood felt Orson Welles deserved for being such an arrogant genius. Marking his return to directing since the studio-imposed evisceration of The Magnificent Ambersons four years earlier, the film seems designed as an act of humbled integration, described by Welles as having been made “to prove that I could put out a movie as well as anybody else.” It is also, according to the director, his own “worst” movie, a notion dutifully held by most critics since. The plot, about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal (Franz Kindler, played by Welles himself) hiding out in a quiet New England town, has on the surface more to do with fallout from WWII and the paranoia fermenting the noir genre than with the director’s personal themes of truth, art, and mania. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals the film to be as distinctively Wellesian as Citizen Kane, and packing nearly as many technical wonders. The extremely long take through the woods during which Kindler meets and strangles an old colleague who has unknowingly served as bloodhound to the authorities (personified by Edward G. Robinson’s shrewd, pipe-smoking investigator) lies in direct contrast with the finale manic montage where the town’s ancient tower clock comes back to life; as usual, Welles’s stylistic bravura is directed less at reconciling the medium’s contradictory extremes than in exploring them. But daring in The Stranger goes beyond pizzazz: Its evocation of quaint Americana is more excoriating than idealized, half Capra parody (complete, literally, with a Mr. Potter of its own in canny town clerk Billy House) and half critique of Pollyannaish complacency in the face of such new horrors as concentration camps (it’s no accident that, as the fugitive’s unbelieving wife, Loretta Young is forever drawing curtains). The ultimate irony may be that, though the movie proved that Welles could handle a more conventional narrative (and even show a modest profit), the Hollywood system had no interest in housing the maverick-auteur. He must have sensed it: There’s renegade poetry in the director staging his stab at a mainstream career as a tale of malignant infiltration, and then proceeding to dynamite it altogether with The Lady from Shanghai.
- 95 min
- Orson Welles
- Anthony Veiller
- Orson Welles, Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson, Philip Merivale, Konstantin Shayne, Byron Keith, Billy House, Martha Wentworth
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