Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Great Unwatched: The Stranger (1946)

Director: Orson Welles
Runtime: 95 minutes

Being married is a strange experience. Suddenly you have to justify a lot of things that you didn't even think about before. For instance, when I wanted to watch Orson Welles' The Stranger, there wasn't a question in my mind as to why -- a well-respected film-noir from one of the great directors? No problem. However, I'm having a stay-in weekend with my wife and so I had to pitch the movie to her. For her, a non-cinephile, the name Orson Welles meant little to nothing and the film's age was actually a strike against it. So I had to spin the plot (despite the fact that I haven't actually seen it) in such a way that it would intrigue her: a Nazi war criminal hiding out in small town America might get his cover blown by a wily investigator.

Of course, my story is true. What Professor Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) must tell his new wife isn't. Once upon a time, he was Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal who faked his own death and escaped to Harper, Connecticut. In this sleepy New England burg, he became Rankin, a history professor at a prestigious college. On the day he's set to wed Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), two new faces come to Harper who could expose him: an old compatriot, Konrad Meinike, and an investigator for the Allied forces, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). Rankin disposes of Konrad, but Mary holds the only piece of evidence connecting the two. Wilson, who doesn't know what Kindler looks like, suspects that Rankin is Kindler, but without Mary's cooperation, it's just that... suspicion. Rankin, meanwhile, begins spinning lies to Mary that fit the facts but not the truth, even as Wilson explains to her exactly to whom she is married. As the two stories battle in her head, Mary becomes increasingly unhinged, something that proves a danger to Rankin's cover and, by extension, to Mary's life.

Welles was reportedly dissatisfied with The Stranger; the final cut wasn't his. The released version eliminated both an extended chase sequence between Meinike and Wilson in the first act as well as the original screenplay's flashback structure. What's left is still an effective thriller, with Welles doing his survival-oriented villain bit, which he would later perfect in The Third Man (1949).* My wife, who brings a unique perspective to elements I might otherwise overlook, noted that there was about 15% more melodrama than necessary. She's probably right, but after years of watching films from this era, I'm almost entirely accustomed to it. The best part of the film is, of course, the tense climax in the clock tower, as Wilson, Mary and Rankin/Kindler attempt to, ah, settle their differences. Welles uses intense close-ups, painted with cinematographer Russell Metty's brilliant shadow-work, to create a palpable sense of tension.

In short, I dig The Stranger quite a bit. My wife... was less enthused, but she did concede that it was "neat."

Worth the Purchase: It was a gift from a dear friend, but I would have gladly paid for it.


Robert Ring said...

"the final cut wasn't his"

Was there ever a final cut that was his? (other than CK, of course)

I'll have to check this one out.

evilgenius333 said...

I love your story of how to "pitch" movie night with your wife. I find myself in that very same position more than I'd like. It's funny - we have exactly the same taste in music, art, vacations (cities to travel to), books, friends, food, - you get the idea. But when it comes to films - hmmm, let's not say something we'll later regret? Yeah - that's about it. Let's just say I usually reserve anything pre-1975 for after she goes to bed. It took all I had to get her to watch Kane. The Stranger - ain't no way, ain't no how (her favorite film is Wizard of Oz and along with It's a Wonderful LIfe - pretty much the only "classics" she'll dig on).

Anyway - I personally haven't seen The Stranger, but can't wait to give it a spin. Thanks for the great review.



Nate Y. said...

Jason -- Glad you liked the review. My wife seems to enjoy it when I work her into the blog, and since part of the point of this endeavor is to discuss both movies and the experience of being a movie lover, she'll continue to feature in my posts.