The legend of Orson Welles has no room for The Stranger. Masterpieces, studio-butchered (or simply flawed) classics, even bad films with elements of genius, but mediocrity never. As Welles’s co-star, Edward G Robinson, once put it, ‘Orson has genius but in this film it seems to have run out’. And yet other great auteurs were permitted hundreds of mediocre films; John Ford seems to have made at least one for every Stagecoach or The Searchers, and even Alfred Hitchcock was allowed his fair share.
The Stranger shows what Welles could have become had he been allowed to work as a jobbing director within the studio system. His output for the radio between 1938 and 1940 was certainly prodigious and not every programme sent Americans panicking into the streets as War of the Worlds did. Perhaps his film career could have been similar. The Stranger was even finished a day ahead of schedule and under budget and actually made money at the box office - not the stuff of Welles legend.
Perhaps it’s because Welles himself disliked the film, but for some reason The Stranger has become one of the filmmaker’s most forgotten and overlooked movies. It merits barely a page or two in most biographies and there are very few stories about its production. Welles apparently directed the film (following the script) by day and performed magic tricks at drunken parties in the evenings. The studio overruled an interesting casting option - Agnes Moorehead (the first wife in Citizen Kane) in the Edward G role - but other than trimming the opening section, interfered very little.
Thus the film is directed entirely by Welles, unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, which had an ending added by Robert Wise, and bears all the hallmarks of an Orson Welles film. His strong (heavy-handed) directorial style is much in evidence: his roving camera and striking angles, chiaroscuro lighting and his composition in depth (although without Gregg Toland’s wide angle lenses and dramatic depth of focus). The film’s strengths, as well as its flaws, are largely due to Welles.
The first reel is excellent - full of drama, tension and dramatic noir-ish shots as former Nazi Meinike is set free from prison in order to lead the war crimes investigators to a bigger fish - Franz Kindler. Edward G Robinson repeats his calm, all-knowing investigator from Double Indemnity. Kindler is played with hammy urbanity by Welles in what seems to be a dry run for his villain in The Third Man, Harry Lime. His speech on a ‘Carthaginian peace’ for Germany bears comparison with Lime’s story of the cuckoo clocks and the Borgias. Welles’s performance is often considered the film’s major flaw, although it is certainly not as jarring as the irritating Irish brogue he employs for The Lady from Shanghai, and seems to be indicative of his restless spirit and his constant striving to try something different, which led to his much lauded voodoo Macbeth as well as War of the Worlds. It is also indicative of his sheer love of acting.
The following reels are set in a sleepy Connecticut town complete with prep school and colonial style buildings (looking remarkably like the set from Gilmore Girls). The film itself takes on the pace of the place as we are treated to fishing trips, discussions on antiques and repairing the town clock, as well as the quirky locals who don’t much mind that the church clock hasn’t worked in decades and are annoyed by the noise when it is fixed. There is the town clerk and store-owner who inadvertently invents the self-service mini-mart so he can listen to the radio and play checkers instead of serving customers.
Disguised as a teacher and married to the daughter of a Supreme Court judge, Kindler hopes to hide out in the idyllic town until the Nazis rise again. But as the net slowly closes in around him the audience finds itself almost sympathising with the unrepentant Nazi (perhaps not to the disturbing extent Hitchcock achieves in Psycho) as he hurriedly redirects a children’s paper chase so they don’t find Meinike’s body. But of course Robinson, with his bulldog tenacity, eventually leads us to a finale that although not quite as baroque as the ‘crazy house’ in The Lady from Shanghai is certainly memorable.
The Stranger won’t trouble the greatest films of all time lists but it is not a bad movie. There are good moments in the overall mediocrity and it is probably better on the whole than The Lady from Shanghai, which alternates between the brilliant and the awful. It might even be the fifth best Orson Welles film…