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Stranger (Olive Films), The
That was certainly my opinion for years, having seen it probably six or seven times through the years, including a new 35mm print MGM either struck or screened when I worked there nearly 20 years ago. But each time I see more and more I'm struck by how un-ordinary The Stranger really is, even within the mid-‘40s film noir field. It's really an extraordinary accomplishment, a more personal film for Welles than most imagine. And Welles was too great a filmmaker to waltz through the making of a movie just to prove a point. Every scene bears his personal stamp and in a number of ways it's superior to his more celebrated noir The Lady from Shanghai, made soon after.
The Stranger's reputation has been hampered further for many years because it had the misfortune to fall into the public domain. It's widely available on myriad home video labels on VHS and DVD, and more recently via distributor Film Chest on Blu-ray. Nearly all of these versions look pretty terrible, and that hasn't helped.
The Film Chest release was pretty awful, with an image extremely soft and dupey. Kino subsequently released a Blu-ray that, judging from the screen grabs, appears to have been excellent overall, and now comes yet another release from Olive Films. It bears an MGM logo at the head, but the transfer is again disappointing. It's much superior to the Film Chest release, but it's frustratingly soft most of the time, though it gets a bit better around the halfway point,
Just after the war, Nazi hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), working with the United Nations War Crimes Commission, frees Nazi Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) hoping that the now fanatically religious war criminal will lead him to Franz Kindler, one of the architects of the Holocaust.
Meinike heads to Harper, Connecticut, a quaint New England town, where Kindler (Orson Welles), using the name Charles Rankin, has established a new identity teaching at the local prep school. Coincidentally, that very day Rankin is to wed Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Threatened by Meinike's sudden appearance, Rankin strangles his former associate and, between the wedding ceremony and the reception, buries his body in a nearby forest. Nevertheless, Wilson, pretending to be an antiques dealer and historian, begins to suspect Rankin may be Kindler following Rankin's off-handed remarks over dinner: "Well," Wilson says, "Who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German ... because he was a Jew?" Further, Mary's spaniel, Red, begins sniffing around Meinike's shallow grave.
In my review of the Film Chest release I wrote, "The Stranger is mostly unexceptional Welles but superb as noir. Despite a few Wellesian set pieces, most involving the Harper's intricate clock tower, though also Meinike's flight in the picture's opening scenes, the bulk of the film is shot in an efficient but fairly ordinary manner. Russell Metty, who also shot Welles's more imaginative and original Touch of Evil (1958), does a fine job here though it's a bit hard to tell because the image is so mediocre. During this period Welles seemed to favor extremely harsh lighting; look at the shadows even at Mr. Potter's (Billy House) drugstore. It's a unique look very similar to Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and, to a lesser extent, The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Even in the light of day, a cold noirish chill runs through Harper's center. The authentic-looking town was in fact a backlot set built off of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. You'd never know it."
Watching it again, I found myself less interested in the picture's celebrated set pieces and much more with the "ordinary" scenes of Robinson, rarely less than excellent generally and superb here, making small talk with residents like Potter that are actually quite probing and subtly manipulative. The characters, even minor ones like Potter and Mary's kid brother, Noah (Richard Long), are unusually rich, a combination of the writing and Welles's direction of the actors. That cold noirish chill running through Harper is indeed so completely convincing it looks certain the film was shot on location in New England, but it's Welles's direction as much as the superb production design. But "fairly ordinary" it's not.
Welles is also very good as Rankin. In my earlier review I complained a bit that Welles "telegraphs his nefarious plotting a bit too obviously when he should be more charming and slippery." That would have been fine for an ordinary picture, but watching it again I now understand what Welles was up to. He wanted to Rankin to be ruthless but paranoid about his identity being discovered, so much so that, realistically, his increasing desperation, spurred by Robinson's doggedness, results in him making more and more mistakes in trying to cover his tracks.
The film is also notable as the first Hollywood feature to include actual footage from the Nazi concentration camps. Very little is shown - Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) is far more graphic - but the brief clips must still have shocked war-weary audiences. One also can't help but wonder about the impact of the film and his character on actor Robinson, a Bucharest-born Jew.
Video & Audio
Why Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Stranger looks so unimpressive, having been licensed from MGM, is a bit of a mystery. It's clean and apparently sourced pre-print material, versus the Kino's Library of Congress 35mm print source, yet lacks all of the sharpness of that release. The 35mm print I saw MGM run all those years ago looked great, so what happened? At about the halfway point, the image improves considerably, though still not quite enough, and the early footage, an important scene with Robinson and Long sitting in a boat in particular, still looks lousy. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono is also not great, requiring much adjustment, and the titles are slightly but obtrusively altered to omit references to the film's original theatrical distributor. Region A encoded and English subtitles are offered.
Supplements include an audio commentary by Nora Fone, and a long and informative text essay by Jennifer Lynde Barker, as well as a trailer.
Watching Olive's new Blu-ray makes this reviewer want to buy Kino's The Stranger, while keeping the supplementary material here for reference. Public domain titles on Blu-ray are especially problematic, and The Stranger, unfortunately, exemplifies this all to well. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.