Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young
Watch The Stranger online in the UK: Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Orson Welles. Man. Filmmaker. Legend. And boy, did he seem to know it, with Citizen Kane – his first feature film – directed at the age of 26 and immediately followed by a movie that resulted in creative differences and wrestling with studios, as he sought to retain his vision. Out of all of his stylish, distinct works, there’s only one conventional movie that appears to play it safe, and only one that actually made a profit upon its initial release: The Stranger.
Arriving five years after Kane, and also after the difficulties surrounding The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger saw Orson (in the hope of earning a multi-picture deal) prove that he could play ball, and that the ball was all the luckier to have him play with it, thank you very much.
The film follows Mr Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator into war crimes whose work takes him to a New England town where he suspects a local academic is actually a high-ranking Nazi. That would be Professor Charles Rankin, played (inevitably) by Welles himself – or, as Wilson believes, Frankz Kindler, an SS official-turned-fugitive post-WWII. But what if Wilson is mistaken? And what about Rankin’s wife, Mary (Loretta Young), who surely can’t be that clueless about her husband’s real identity?
It might seem like an odd choice of subject for Welles, falling into a similar vein as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but there’s real meat in the material: the film became the first Hollywood movie to show footage of the Holocaust, as Welles not only refuses to shy away from the horrors of reality, but also builds a disturbing portrayal of Nazi Germany’s ability to infiltrate American society. Casting himself in the villainous role only adds to the intrigue, as Welles manages to slip between masks and identities, while retaining a chilling quality that’s countered by Robinson’s charismatic, determined hero. Young, meanwhile, delivers an excellent turn, as Mary is torn between adoration and fear, caught in the middle of these two men, both strangers disrupting the life that she had assembled.
It builds at a deceptively well crafted pace to a climax in a clock tower, but still finds room for long takes and a nuanced portrayal of malltown life (although Welles faced tough opposition in what scenes would end up included and note – an opening chase sequence was sadly removed). The result is a compelling, low-key vehicle that nonetheless contains some understated Wellesian touches, from the gorgeous use of lighting to the imposing, controlling presence of no fewer than two obsessive men. This may be a more mainstream offering from Orson, but it’s a film noir fuelled by paranoia and impressive performances. It’s sadly ironic, then, that his story of a corrupted wholesome life ended bitterly, with Welles still not getting his multi-picture deal – continuing a barbed relationship with an industry that he would later skewer savagely in the dizzying The Other Side of the Wind.
The Stranger is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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