Blossoming cinephiles who get around to The Stranger later in life may be startled by the film they actually see after potentially hearing of its mediocrity as a reflection of director Orson Welles’s desire to achieve a functional worker-for-hire anonymity following the brilliant but unprofitable one-two punch of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. No, The Stranger isn’t exhilarating in the same fashion as those earlier films, or the later Falstaff or Touch of Evil; its technical virtuosity isn’t as playful, and its theme is (deceptively) more intimate and less ambitious, but these qualities are revealed as virtues. Cloaking his formal wit in surprisingly earnest despair, Welles made a film of implied perversity that retroactively asserts itself as a kissing cousin of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Both films helped to forge the path for the paranoid Americana of 1950s cinema in their portrayals of small towns as deceptive mouse traps hidden among bright green shrubbery and love-thy-neighbor platitude.
The plot is a common enough piece of anti-war propaganda for Hollywood in the mid-1940s. Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is an agent for the United Nations War Crimes Commission on the hunt for Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler (Welles). In the opening, Wilson insists that another Nazi criminal, Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), be released with the hope that he’ll lead the law right to Kindler. Meinike proceeds to do just that (with a bit too much ease, this portion most explicitly reflects the requisite studio fiddling with Welles’s pacing), leading Wilson to a small Connecticut town where Kindler is eventually discovered to have assumed the identity of Charles Rankin, a prep school teacher on the verge of marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the socially connected daughter of Supreme Court Justice Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale).
One can imagine the satirical fun Hitchcock would’ve had with this scenario, which bears a striking thematic resemblance to his later Strangers on a Train, only with the positioning of the good and bad guys reversed. But Welles is a brooder, not a satirist, and he largely forgoes the plot after the elaborate setup in favor of sequences that emphasize sensations of claustrophobia, anxiety, containment, and impending destruction in a fashion that will anticipate his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Despite an unsettling late scene that reveals the breadth of Kindler’s influence over the atrocities committed during the Holocaust (he’s meant to be taken on the level of a Joseph Goebbels), the film still dotes the majority of its empathetic imagination on him. Kindler is probably literally meant to be the stranger of the title, but Wilson most prominently scans as the invader who upsets the applecart of a small town by forcing it to face up to evils hiding in plain sight.
To an extent, we feel for Kindler against our intellectual better judgment because he’s been subversively positioned as the barometer of a small town’s potential for grabbing hold of its citizens and seemingly contorting their lives in fashions that satisfy its mysterious, foreboding amusement, a tendency that allows people to fritter with the immediate concerns of their lives while something like a Holocaust rages on elsewhere. Welles most prominently expresses this theme with his considerable command of composition, as The Stranger features some of the director’s most beautiful, subtly effective tracking shots, which largely affirm the idea of the characters’ inability to escape their pursuers’, and their neighbors’, probing regard. There are also a great variety of Wellesian shots accentuating reflections in mirrors and other glass surfaces of the backgrounds of spaces to establish a sense of depth that suggests both literal verisimilitude as well as a symbolic merging of multiple intangible worlds. (It’s easy to imagine The Stranger as an influence on Twin Peaks.)
The film is also a feast of the usual Wellesian puns and dark, juvenile jokes. Meinike knocks Wilson out in a high school gym with an exercise rope, and quickly passes by a sign advising to use the workout equipment at your own risk. Wilson and Kindler are always fiddling with clocks, which is proven to be both an elaborate metaphor for Kindler’s fascist theories as well as a prolonged instance of foreshadowing his eventual baroque death. Even the relationship between the names Rankin and Kindler is a clever bit of internal obsessiveness, the latter having been puzzled out from the parts of the former. If The Stranger truly represented Welles “coasting” on popcorn material (a condescending attitude even if it were accurate), then it’s a profound shame he wasn’t allowed by Hollywood to coast more often.
This Kino transfer is much, much stronger than previous preservations of The Stranger. Blacks are generally sharp, and the depth of image is refreshingly apparent after a variety of washed-out tragedies that probably contributed quite a bit to this film’s underrating in the Orson Welles canon. But problems still persist: Frames still skip, and the image in certain sections, though improved throughout, is still washed out, most likely as a reflection of the technical strains inherent in producing Welles’s long takes for little money or time. The English LPCM 2.0 audio track is flat, once again perhaps unavoidably, but it’s clean and mercifully devoid of the ghastly white noise that has marred prior editions of the film. This isn’t a perfect transfer, but it’s a significant step in the right direction, and thusly one shouldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth.
Film historian Bret Wood’s audio commentary is dry, but it’s a valuable defense of the highly accomplished thematic and formal gamesmanship of The Stranger. Wood covers how Welles conveyed shifting power dynamics through his customarily bold staging, the tracking shots and their significance, and, most fascinatingly the sadly typical enough accounts of how Welles’s more ambitious instincts were tampered with by the producers, particularly the long take near the beginning that was intended to boast a rich variety of differing sonic textures as dictated by the cultures featured in the passing shot. The image gallery, usually a throwaway feature, is also legitimately interesting in mapping out how sets were used and fused together to create the Connecticut town that serves as the primary setting. Also included are several of Welles’s radio programs that usefully illustrate his aspirations to promote awareness of the extent of the Nazi party’s activities throughout America. A solid package.
Kino has taken some imperfect yet heroic steps to restoring Orson Welles’s The Stranger in all its brilliant, subversive grandeur.