Friday, July 30, 2010

The Stranger

Orson Welles blends plot elements from some of the best film noirs of the 1940s for his third film The Stranger (1946), and although it proved to be his most financially successfully film as a director, it might very well be his most disappointing and lacking in the visual flair he displayed in his masterpieces.

Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is an investigator tracking down Nazi War criminal Franz Kindler (Welles), and his search has led him to Harper, CT, where Kindler has assumed a new identity as a professor at a prestigious boys academy and even married Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice (Phillip Merivale). As Wilson moves in, he attempts to persuade Mary the man she married is really a monster, but if Kindler should suspect anything, he will kill her.

I was reminded of three movies while watching: Double Indemnity (1944), The Third Man (1949), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Wilson is reminiscent of Keyes, the insurance investigator played by Robinson in DI. Robinson is more straitlaced and restrained here and not the same rapid-fire motormouth, but given the background of Nazi war crimes and concentration camps, that's more appropriate (DI was just as much a dark comedy as a thriller).

Welles seems be tuning up for Harry Lime, once again playing a postwar criminal in hiding and resorting to an elaborate deception. But whereas as Lime remained in the shadows and was to a degree charismatic, Kindler might as well be flashing a sign that says "I'm a Nazi!" Whether it's writing down his plans to murder his wife, physically reacting in the presence of Wilson to the discovery of evidence, and concocting elaborate lies to tell his wife (which she believes without question), it's hard to believe this man has evaded capture from a worldwide manhunt and never left evidence. He even kills a dog (just so the audience can be sure he is evil).

Finally, in Shadow of a Doubt, Teresa Wright slowly learns her uncle Joseph Cotton is a serial killer. There, she was proactive, finding the truth herself, and when she learns the facts about someone she's idolized all her life, it's understandable she'd initially be reluctant to act. Here, Mary has to be told everything and then denies it. If she didn't, the movie would end because she would say what Wilson needs to arrest Kindler. It feels contrived. Plus, it's established early on the townspeople consider Kindler an outsider and stranger who has not been in Harper very long. There's not much passion between Mary and Kindler, so her discovery doesn't carry as much emotional weight as Wright learning the uncle she was named after is a murderer.

That is not to say Welles fails to imbue anything of substance or value. Welles depicts the ability of upper class suburbia to both shield and deny the presence of evil. Kindler easily assimilates himself in the upper class community, all the while believing himself to be superior to everyone else. He even compares himself to God looking down on an inferior race. As she learns evidence of her husband's crimes, Mary clings to his lies because the truth means she loves a Nazi. Although not stated explicitly, a scandal of that proportion would ruin her reputation. Notice how she's always insisting the curtains of the house be closed. Even in this perfect little town (the town clerk says, "In Harper, there's nothing to be afraid of."), dark secrets exist, and the wicked can remain anonymous. Evil is not just in a European death camp; it can be right next door or in your own house.

As direction goes, Welles still shows he's the master of shadows and claustrophobic closeups, even if his work is not a patch on Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil. When Mary learns the facts, the clock in the town church tower is repaired (by Kindler, who loves clocks), and the bell is constantly chiming to remind her of her guilt. The movie moves at a quick pace and is fairly exciting. Robinson is good, and the rest of the cast is able, even though Welles and Young aren't helped by one-note characterization and contrived plotting respectively.

My biggest problem with The Stranger is it feels routine and transparently commercial. There are no surprises, and it doesn't really doesn't stand out. While Welles and his actors manage to elevate the material, it disappoints. Still, it's Orson Welles, and though not a masterpiece, it's worth a look.

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