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Savant Short Review:

Citizen Welles:
The Stranger
The Trial

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Stranger; The Trial
1946/63 / B&W / 1:37, 1:66 flat

Savant has to admit he ordered this DVD thinking it was RKO 281, for which Citizen Welles is an alternate title. Instead, this is a special two disc edition of Orson Welles' very good films The Stranger and The Trial, with some extra material.

Both films are acknowledged classics. The Stranger is Welles' tense thriller about a government agent (Edward G. Robinson) tracking a Nazi war criminal (Orson) to a small New England town, where he's managed to ferret himself away under a false identity and is about to marry a local woman (Loretta Young). In a clever game of cat & mouse, the agent tightens the noose around the suspected Nazi, who eventually turns on his new wife for betraying him. Kind of Welles' answer to Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, this is an excellently told story, where Welles restrains his tendencies toward cinematic extremes in favor of simple narrative clarity, and proves himself able to make an 'ordinary' assignment movie, extraordinary.

The Trial is an excellent adaptation of the Kafka novel about a man called 'K' (Anthony Perkins), living in some unidentified European bureaucratic state, who is accused of a crime and cannot get anyone to tell him what it might be. He ineffectually searches for the answers, finding no help or comfort from friends or associates, in what must have been a very sterile life. Even his lawyer stares at him, as if his questions were clever insults, and the film becomes a cold intellectual examination of paranoia and the modern state. Made mostly in Paris in Welles' late-career guerrilla mode of filmmaking, this art film is possibly the most fully realized film version of Kafka; unlike The Stranger, it tends to alienate normal audiences too.

Judging by the handsome packaging of this Citizen Welles DVD set, and reading the claims on the cover, one would think this an attractive bargain. It isn't. Both films are already available separately on DVD (Image Entertainment & Milestone, I believe) in very good-looking editions taken from excellent elements. This set makes the deceptive claim that the films are fully restored. As explained in the restoration documentary, each transfer was optimized for contrast and cleaned up digitally to some extent. But the source materials were obviously 16mm public domain-quality prints. Both features are dupey, with bad contrast and poor definition. The digital work improves their looks, but much better copies of both titles can be seen free of charge on the Turner Classic Movies cable station, where they both play from time to time.

The set is almost a parody of a Criterion-style presentation. A quote on the back from critic Jeffrey Lyons reads, "This restoration is in perfect condition. Orson Welles would have loved seeing it." I'm not particularly enamored of Lyons as a reviewer, but the nerve of this flimflam takes the cake, as Lyon is a contributor to the disc itself, in commentaries on the features, and in narration on the extras. I only hope he was tricked into doing this, as anyone who pays good money for this DVD set is going to be furious at him.

After seeing, (or sampling) the poor feature transfers, the extras on the disc are like salt in the wound. The one good feature is the short subject Hearts of Age from 1934, an interesting amateur piece that indeed shows Welles to be a 19 year old who's conversant with obscure European subject matter and editing styles. The emphasis on old-age makeup and gothic effects is pretty impressive for what is essentially a backyard movie. I'm glad I saw this. It's a silent, but Focusfilm has added a very annoying commentary by Jeffrey Lyons.

All of Lyon's commentaries on this disc are simply terrible. He's unfocused, rambling and repetitive, seemingly talking off the top of his head. For anyone with even a cursory knowlege of Welles, he's a bore, and his explanations about the director are so confused, beginners won't have a clue to what he's talking about. It makes one wish for a return to the informed fawning of Peter Bogdanovich.

Just when you thought things couldn't be worse, the documentary about the 'restoration' of the pictures does little more than assure the viewer that all the bad visuals you are looking at, look great. Pretending they are industry professionals, the perpetrators of the disc come on like experts on both Welles and film restoration as they take you through the mixing and tape-to-tape digital editing facilities where the work was done. It must be said that the audio people have done a decent job cleaning up the tracks, but there's just so much that can be done with the bad original picture materials.

It's almost a parody of one of Criterion's restoration demonstrations: The 'before' samples have been tweaked to look worse than they possibly could have when transferred from film; and the 'after' final results are identical, except with better contrast and some superficial flaw cleanup. In one demo sample where a body falls from a clock tower, there's a big blemish on one frame of film. On the 'digitally scrubbed' version, it's painfully clear that the blemish area has been sloppily replaced with image from a couple of frames down the line - the people on the snow 'pop' in position very distractingly. The 'restorers' tout this botch as an example of their fine work.

The docu on the films and their restoration is also a very sloppy and amateurish job. Low resolution photos look like tiny digital files blown up far too large. The narration frequently lags behind or races ahead, a couple of shots off the appropriate pictures. Some basic facts on the films are spoken over very low-res clips from the features, and the rest of the running time is a snow job on what a terrific restoration this is.

Savant rarely gives negative reviews, but this disc is going to frustrate a lot of consumers and thus deserves special notice. It's a public service to let you know what you're in for. Don't be fooled by the slick and inviting graphics and text on the packaging. Both of these Orson Welles classics are already out in quality editions.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Citizen Welles rates:
Movie: (The Stranger and The Trial) Excellent, but you don't want to see them here.
Video: Poor
Sound: Fair
Supplements: The Hearts of Age short subject, restoration docus, photo galleries.
Packaging: Double keep case; two-disc set.
Reviewed: December 26, 2001

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