Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.4: Orson Welles' The Stranger

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 65/B

After the twin commercial failures of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles would face more disappointments still. His passion project It’s All True would be cancelled by RKO Pictures following budget problems, and Welles’ attempts to get backing from other studios proved futile. The director would then turn back to radio and take acting gigs in films (most notably as Rochester in Jane Eyre) while also dabbling in activist journalism and politics. Welles would not return to directing films until 1946, when he agreed to make The Stranger for producer Sam Spiegel (credited as S.P. Eagle). The film was made entirely to prove that Welles could direct a film with no holdups, no budget problems, and no arguments. The film would be his only financial success, and Welles would later say that it was his least favorite of his films. It’s certainly his least idiosyncratic, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie by any means.

Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is a war crimes investigator for the United Nations, hunting an escaped Nazi by the name of Franz Kindler (Welles). Wilson releases one of Kindler’s cronies in order to track down Kindler, and the man leads him to Harper, Connecticut. There, Kindler has assumed the name Charles Rankin, taken a job as a prep school teacher, and has married Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. Kindler then must avoid tipping the sly Wilson off to who he is, all while keeping up an illusion of wholesomeness with Mary.

The script, originally by Anthony Veiller, was given an uncredited rewrite by Welles and John Huston. Welles and Huston could have easily made it more subversive and disturbing, but it mostly comes off as a pulpy post-WWII B-movie with little on its mind than thrills and an anti-Nazi sentiment. Most of the writing ranges from functional to goofy (see: most of Young’s behavior when she learns of her husband’s true identity), and the subversion of small town wholesomeness (idealized professor turned evil, evil in a small town) is pretty surface level stuff. There is one interesting discussion between Wilson and Kindler that speaks of the German mindset, and why one should not expect peace even after the end of the war. When Wilson brings up Marx as a counterpoint, a bemused Kindler remarks “Marx wasn’t a German. Marx was a Jew”. It’s a fascinating conversation, made slightly irritating by the fact that the supposedly cautious Kindler has effectively outed himself to a Nazi hunter.

Slightly more disappointing is how relatively safe the film feels coming from a master director like Welles. There are few long takes, and while Welles’ expressionistic lighting is present, it often feels like it could have come from any number of noir craftsmen (say, Michael Curtiz). Welles did try to bring a few more eccentric touches- he wanted Agnes Moorehead for Robinson’s part, but Spiegel turned this suggestion down. With most of Welles films, there’s a feeling that we’re seeing something new and exciting. With The Stranger, we’re getting quick thrills that are easy to forget.

Still, Welles does bring a few nice personal touches in. The prep school angle is likely a reference to Welles’ own time at the Todd School for Boys, and the politically-minded, anti-fascist Welles is the first director to show concentration camp footage in a Hollywood film. The performances are mostly just solid (Robinson, Young), but Welles does bring a dark charisma to his role, and every scene with a folksy, checkers-loving town clerk played wonderfully by Billy House is incredible. Best of all is the final set-piece at a clocktower, where Welles does get a chance to go all out with tense sound design (a recently fixed clock), a sense of claustrophobia, and an expressionistic use of objects when Kindler does meet his ghastly demise, impaled by an angel’s sword, falling to his death as the hands of the clock revolve rapidly. The film gets a final “well, it’s all going to be OK!” scene, but the dark and disturbing death is what lingers longer.
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