As I have been doing this career appreciation segment here at Film Misery, I have learned that even the greatest filmmakers of all-time have their flaws. Every director has that one film that they admit they did not enjoy making. Usually it was because they suffered from some creative differences with other cast or crew members or because it was a particularly difficult time in their personal life. However, a director calling their own film one of their least favorite to make, does not diminish the undeniable excellence of a true master at work.
For the great Orson Welles, the film that got away was the 1946 post-war thriller The Stranger. This film came at a curious time in Welles life. He had just released Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons two films that went over-schedule, over-budget and flopped at the box office. The Stranger was his chance to prove that he can finish a film on time and within budget. This was also the first and only film that Welles directed, but did not write. Despite a few uncredited script tweaks by Welles and John Huston, veteran writer Anthony Veiller got sole credit for the screenplay.
Welles’ own attitude towards The Stranger is reflected in the finished result as it has a very â€œsafeâ€ feel to it. It lacks the brilliant subtlety and emboldened attitude of his most loved films. However, if you give a genius his tools and tell him to make something ordinary, despite their best efforts you still see the signs of a genius.
The Stranger assembles a brilliant cast of actors who were bankable at the time for being audience draws. Edward G. Robinson plays Mr. Wilson, an Allied War Crimes Commission inspector who goes on the hunt for an ex-Nazi leader named Franz Kindler. Wilson follows a released Nazi criminal named Konrad Meinike to the small college town of Harper, Connecticut. Meinike eludes Wilson for long enough for us to meet Franz Kindler, played by Orson Welles, who has adopted the persona of Professor Charles Rankin, a college professor and clock expert. He even has plans to marry the beautiful Mary Longstreet, a Supreme Court Justiceâ€™s daughter. Rankin tells Meinike that he plans to maintain this faÃ§ade until it is time for them to “rise again.”
After Mr. Wilsonâ€™s arrival to the town of Harper, Rankinâ€™s paranoia starts to set in. The discovery of Meinikeâ€™s dead body, the poisoning of Mary Longstreetâ€™s dog, and subtle anti-Semitic statements made by Rankin raise flags in the investigation and a cat-and-mouse game pursues as Mr. Wilson attempts to uncover the truth. As the suspicion sets in, Rankin retreats to the townâ€™s clock-tower, which has become his obsession.
Welles is particularly effective in the role of Charles Rankin/Franz Kindler. He makes subtle character choices when playing the part of Professor Rankin that differ from when the true Nazi comes out. The arc is brilliant as we see Rankin gradually become Franz Kindler, spurred by anti-Semitic outbursts at the dinner table and escalating violence towards his wife. Welles was on a strict diet and exercise regimen during filming, which might explain why looks curiously younger than he did in Citizen Kane, which was made 5 years earlier.
Years after The Stranger was released Orson Welles and Edward G. Robinson spoke of how they disliked working with each other. Any conflict the two legendary actors had behind-the-scenes, certainly did not show up on camera as they play off each other brilliantly. The strongest performances in the film come when the diminutive Robinson puts the lofty Welles on the defensive as he presses to learn the truth about his past. Another strong performance comes from the beautiful Loretta Young as the innocent Mary Longstreet whose steadfast will to defend her husband leads her gradually into madness.
Welles was not seeking intellectual gold with this film as he did with his previous two brilliant flops. Itâ€™s true that The Stranger does not have close to the psychological impact, or the filmmaking gravitas of Citizen Kane. However, it is undeniable that the master strokes of Wellesâ€™ auteurism appear in almost every frame. He uses long takes and tracking shots, with a camera that gradually moves in closer to the faces of the characters as they get more emotionally desperate. The clock tower that haunts Charles Rankin frequently appears ominously in the background of scenes, as a constant reminder of the past that haunts us all.
Itâ€™s almost unfair to review Wellesâ€™ less impressive films, because a bad film for Welles is like a bad song by the Beatles. The Stranger is a better-than-average spy-thriller and particularly relevant for the time period of its release and most definitely worth discovering for Welles fans everywhere.