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Old 13th November 2020, 12:03 PM
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MacBlayne MacBlayne is offline
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The Stranger

Orson Welles said that his third feature was his worst, and I would have to concur. Coming after the groundbreaking Citizen Kane, and experimental narrative of The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger's story falls short of any expectations you may have. However, temper those expectations, and power through the script's poor plotting and conveniences, and you can see some of his magic.

Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a war crimes agent, arrives to a small town in Connecticut. His mission to track down a Nazi fugitive responsible for some of the most heinous acts of the Holocaust. Wilson casts his suspicions on the local prep school's history teacher, Charles Rankin (Welles). Rankin is highly respected member of the community, but nobody knows of his past. Wilson's suspicions are proven to be correct, but he must act quickly, before Rankin kills again (this is not a spoiler as the film states this seven minutes in).

The Stranger feels like Welles's concession to the studios. He managed to make it on schedule and below budget, and despite some arguments with his producers, he didn't fight for it like his other films. His and John Huston's contributions to the screenplay are uncredited, possibly due to how the plot is boilerplate, and lacking. For example, Wilson's proof comes at the most ludicrous time, and he doesn't have to convince anybody of his suspicions. Everybody but one central character believes him, because the plot dictates that they must. As such, the performances are fine without ever crossing into the memorable.

However, as I mentioned, the Welles magic is there. Through cinematographer Russell Metty, he creates images that harken more to German Expressionism than his previous films. There is a shot of a cruel shadow climbing over a sleeping character that recalls Count Orlok preying on Hatter in Nosferatu. Welles employed longer takes to build suspense, with one shot lasting over four minutes. Welles also explores the psychological devastation such a revelation would have on the people around Rankin, with Rankin's wife, Mary (Loretta Young), clearly crumbling under the constant gaslighting and internal excuses.

Finally, although it was probably just intended to be a safe studio thriller, Welles's treatment of the Holocaust was perhaps the most explicit ever seen. The film never shies away from the atrocities committed by the Nazis. In one crucial scene, we are shown actual documentary footage from the concentration camps. As the footage of mass graves and mutilated survivors flash before us, Wilson calmly narrates the methods in which the Nazis murdered millions. It's stomach churning, and it's hard to imagine anybody but Welles having the gumption to include such a scene in a commercial thriller.

The Stranger is a serviceable genre exercise, that is perhaps better watched as a prelude to Welles's later ventures into Film Noir. The Lady from Shanghai would seem him fully embellishing the visual traits of the genre, while he would prove his narrative genius with Touch of Evil. On its own terms, The Stranger is an average Noir with some moments that still hold up to this day. Such as the following exchange...

"Surely, you don't think - Mr. Wilson, I've never - I've never so much as even seen a Nazi."

"Well, you might without you realising it. They look like other people and - act like other people, when it's to their benefit."
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