I have recently purchased the Kino Lorber LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Release of this film, and if ever a movie deserved to be preserved it is this one. That said this release needs some remastering, has noticeable frame drops, and syncing issues, and occasional small picture degradation in places, but nothing that effects the enjoyability of this film, and this is an extremely enjoyable Orson Welles film.
I am on record as calling Orson Welles my favorite director of the sound era, and I have a lot of favorite Directors from David Lean to Carl Franklin to Gordon Parks to Raoul Walsh to Diop Mambety to Johnnie To to John Woo to the Russo Brothers to Alfred Hitchcock to Fritz Lang to Masaki Kobayashi to Haille Gerima , but if I had the unenviable task of only saving one Director’s body of work, for me it word be Orson Welles.
His work is foundational to what cinema is for me, not only the sublime look of his work (which is a huge part of it, those Wellsian perspectives, deep focus, and shadows), but the themes of existential angst, unfocused dread regarding the state of the world or the human condition, that is at the heart of his films. There is a romantic, dark poetry that suffuses his work, and how he crafts his work, that for me is deeply resonant, and is the Alpha from which much of sound based cinema must launch from, to craft their Omegas.
Even what is a generally under mentioned, and I think overlooked film, THE STRANGER. Released August of 1946, when this started production World War II had just ended several months ago, in summer of 1945. People were still counting their dead, the damaged living trying to integrate from war back into peace. The process of dealing with war criminals and hunting down war criminals, was not just topical, it was being formulated and ironed out as this movie was in production.
It was the first film to use concentration camp footage. This is just seen as a thriller today, but upon release this was a very sensitive , and explosive topic, especially considering there were elements in the United States that were denying Germany’s concentration camps and extermination programs. The same elements in the United States that were against the US entering the war.
So for Welles to make a film, still in the tumult of a time of war, that warned of the unfinished business of war, was and to some extent remains… ground breaking.
And Welles was critical of this movie, but outside of Citizen Kane he was critical of all his films due to various levels of Studio Interference. Much like the writer Alan Moore, the negative connotations he had with the producers of the work, would sour his outlook on the work. Welles, was akin to a butcher too close to the slaughtering of the lambs, to enjoy the final meal.
Also while I love Welles as both Director and Actor, he liked to be the star in his films, and liked to work with actors that he was familiar with and could, if not overshadow, to some extent dictate to, and the casting of Edward G. Robinson that was forced on him by the studios, flew in the face of this.
But in this small case the Studios were… right (I balk to say that because they were typically wrong in their choices to neuter Welles), Edward G. Robinson is brilliant in this role, and a worthy equal to hold his own, in scenes with Welles. THE STRANGER begins with Edward G. Robinson and ends with Edward G. Robinson, making this arguably more his film… than Welles may have been comfortable with.
Going along with that, I cannot see this film being improved, by having Welles’ choice… Agnes Moorehead as the Detective, with all due respect to Ms. Moorehead. It would have been a vastly different film, but arguably per the audio commentary by Bret Wood, that is what Welles was striving for.
Welles was deeply shaken by his exposure in 1945 to the newsreel footage of the liberation of German Concentration camps, footage that would not be disseminated in many American circles, American circles that still sought to downplay this talk of German atrocities as fake news.
This film, true to the wunderkind that Welles always was, was Welles turning outrage to action. While the mass of men did nothing or ignored the news, Welles turned around and in months from seeing that footage had gotten a film into production that touched upon the world of atrocities, that small-town America USA was being kept from, was oblivious to. But his film, based on the story beats that did not make it into the film, was going to be something more harsh and brutal, and far reaching than the film we got.
Possibly Welles, left to his devices and with Agnes Moorhead in the role of the Detective, would have given us something more akin to COME SEE or SHINDLER’S LIST. We will never know. And arguably it is the film he did not make, that is all Welles could see when he looked at THE STRANGER. However the film he did make was successful, did reach audiences, and was impactful. For the time it was made I think the film was as impactful as could have been made, and anything more impactful would not have made it to audiences… not in a 1946, trying to put the horrors of a just won war… behind them.
So it wasn’t his complete vision, but the film that is there I would argue, compromises and all, is like most of Welles’ films… transcendent and says something about who we were, who we are, and who we strive to be. I have watched THE STRANGER easily over a half dozen times now, and every-time it strikes me deeply, in the shots, and the speeches, and the language and the performances, and the direction, it strikes me as… the work of a master visionary and humanist. It strikes me as moving and worthy.
And Loretta Young rounds out the major players in this film, delivering one of the standout lines in a film replete with them, but also a standout line in cinema. When you hear it you’ll know it. It is for me her finest and most memorable role and performance by far.
Movies like CITIZEN KANE and MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS may get the accolades (and deservedly so) but for sheer cinema and rewatchability, for me THIRD MAN (credited to Carol Reed, the uncredited direction is by Orson Welles), LADY OF SHANGHAI and THE STRANGER go at the top of any list.
An overlooked classic. Love this film, and it does deserve a quality restoration. Highly Recommended!