Blog Directory CineVerse: This "Stranger" is friendly to classic film fans

This "Stranger" is friendly to classic film fans

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Arguably the worst movie made by Orson Welles would probably be the best film helmed by a lesser director. Possible case in point: The Stranger, Welles’ 1946 noirish thriller that lacks many of the stylistic flourishes and storytelling derring-do that distinguished his two previous films. Regardless of its shortcomings, The Stranger satisfies on several levels. Our CineVerse band examined it in detail last week (click here to listen to a recording of that discussion); here’s a review of our talking points.

What did you find distinctive, different, unexpected, or curious about The Stranger?

  • Despite being directed by Orson Welles, the filmmaker behind Citizen Kane, this movie may disappoint based on the expectations you have for Welles to wow you with his directorial choices and artistic genius. First-time viewers may anticipate the kind of stylistic innovation, groundbreaking narrative techniques, and visual panache that Welles was known for based on his other works, especially the two predecessors Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
  • But the truth is that he had fallen far out of favor by Hollywood and filmgoers after the failures of those two films, and he was given an opportunity by producer Sam Spiegel to direct his third film, but only if Welles could bring the picture in on time and under budget. Wells accomplished both goals, although he had to compromise his artistic vision on the project, abandon lofty ambitions for the picture, and acquiesce to Spiegel on several decisions.
    • Yet, the movie still showcases Welles’ brilliance with its atmospheric high-contrast lighting, deep-focus photography, unconventional camera angles, ambitious crane and tracking shots, long takes (such as the shot through the woods that ends with Kindler strangling Meineke), fast-paced finale montage, compositions featuring silhouettes, and reflective shots using mirrored surfaces.
    • Welles builds tension through technique (such as using tracking shots to suggest that the players are unable to evade their pursuers and the townspeople’s interests) as well as by building our expectation for Kindler being sniffed out by Wilson and the residents of Harper. The film becomes a clever cat and mouse game type story.
    • Ironically, this is been cited as the only film directed by Wells to turn a profit.
  • This is the first Hollywood movie to show documentary footage of the Holocaust, which would have been eye-opening to American audiences at the time.
  • Interestingly, the screenplay, though credited to Anthony Veiller, was rewritten by director John Huston and Welles himself.

Themes explored in The Stranger

  • Duplicitous doubling/twinning: Kindler leads a double life, while Wilson masquerades as someone other than a Nazi hunter; Wilson and Meineke are opposites but arrive at the same time in the small town of Harper; and both Wilson and Rankin enjoy tinkering with clocks.
  • A man running out of time. Kindler demonstrates skill in repairing the clock tower and prides himself on clockwork precision as a planner. But as a cosmic irony, he is destroyed by the very hands of time when one of the clock tower figures fatally skewers him through with its sword.
    • Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “For Rankin/Kindler, bringing the broken clock back to life might represent getting the gears of the Nazi mechanism working in this new, unsuspecting country. The clock tower becomes the stage for risky confrontations and Kindler’s last stand.”
  • Evil can hide in plain sight and infiltrate anywhere – even small-town America. Harper, Connecticut, is a safe and sociable little burg where all the residents know each other personally: the ideal environment in which a monster like Kindler can hide and gradually be accepted without suspicion, or at least that’s his plan. But he quickly learns that it’s harder to find safe refuge in a small town than he anticipated and even the naive, unsuspecting rubes can turn on you quickly when they learn the truth.
  • Even the people closest to you can turn out to be complete strangers. Mary eventually learns that the man she has married is an unknown outsider, the kind of person she would never expect to marry. Consider that the title “The Stranger” could refer to up to three characters: Kindler, but also Wilson or Meineke, who each recently enter Harper as outsiders who attract attention from the locals.

Similar works

  • Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt
  • Mid-1940s films that suggest the rise of a new Third Reich, including Notorious, Gilda, and Cornered
  • Salem’s Lot
  • Twin Peaks

Other important films directed by Orson Welles

  • Citizen Kane
  • The Magnificent Ambersons
  • The Lady From Shanghai
  • Othello
  • Touch of Evil
  • Chimes at Midnight

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