I Live, and Orson Welles’ The Stranger
My myriad of readers will no doubt be reassured to know that I am still alive. Having left a number of massive uni essays til the last moment (as is the way of the uni student) I have been so caught up in the issues of Jain religious identity and representations of technology in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero & Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road that I haven’t had the chance to view many films let alone write about them. Also recent leisure time has been dominated by trips to Melbourne for Socceroos games and reading some of the awesome new books I scored for my birthday. Anyways I decided enough was enough and it was time to get back into it at least momentarily. So I took a little time out from the English essay (that I couldn’t really afford) and checked out a movie I have watched and loved before, Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946).
Orson Welles is best known generally for making what is often called the greatest film ever Citizen Kane (1941). The Stranger is not conceived on as grand a scale. What it is though is fantastically enjoyable to watch. As I put the DVD on this afternoon, I was really excited to be watching this film again, remembering how much I had enjoyed it the first time I saw it. Usually when I watch a film I liked a second time there is trepidation that it won’t hold up to a second viewing, but I had no such qualms with this one. If you were to assign a genre to this film I guess it is somewhat of a detective film, with the plot essentially involving the tracking of a heinous criminal. It sees a war criminal being intentionally set free, in the hope that he will lead authorities (without his knowledge) to his dastardly Nazi commander Franz Kindler. The focus in on Wilson, the man charged with the responsibility of uncovering and unmasking Kindler in the small American town he has taken refuge in under a new identity. The plot reaches its tense climax atop a clock tower late at night after Wilson has befriended many of the town’s residents and discovered which one is really the fiendish Kindler. I will leave the plot description at that instead of going on my usual spoiler-laden rampage, because I would guess a lot of people would not have seen this film, and I don’t want to give it all away. But aplogies if a few more spoilers slip in later on.
Most of the action takes place in a small town in the United States. We know it is a small town in the United States cause it has a diner with a nosy know-it-all owner, a tendency for either autumn leaves or snowflakes to be falling, people on bikes dinging their bells in a friendly manner and a clock tower which becomes a focus for much of the action. The scenes in the clock tower were for me very reminiscent of Vertigo (1958) and I wonder if Hitchcock didn’t take at least a little inspiration from the high camera angles and dizzying depiction of height that Wells manages here. The town is brilliantly created and provides a sense of community and place for the film to fit into. Just as important to the success of this film is a range of really interesting characters conveyed by some excellent performances. Orson Welles, rocking an excellent moustache, has fashioned a truly memorably villain in his role as Rankin/Kindler. He is chillingly smug when outlining his fervent belief that there will be another Nazi uprising to the escaped Shayne. He then coldheartedly chokes Shayne to death whilst he is attempting to get him to repent from his sins in what is a scene of pretty brutal violence. The way in which he is able to delude the town’s residents, especially the young men he teaches, into thinking he is an ace guy makes his true nature all the more chilling. Indeed the performances in this film are almost universally good. Konrad Meinike in his small role as the escaped war criminal turned evangelist Shayne renders an incredibly sinister character. The innocent but brave Noah is expertly crafted by Richard Long and the tender relationship depicted between him and his sister in danger Mary played by Loretta Young is lovely. But the standout performance is undoubtedly Edward G Robinson as the investigator Wilson. According to the notes I made whilst watching the film, Robinson is “the fucking dude.” To add a little nuance to these sentiments (which I stand by wholeheartedly), Robinson’s performance is an incredible one and he portrays a very smart and incredibly likable character. Not exactly an archetypal hero (Robinson is a short, squat man), Wilson wins over the townsfolk with his charm and nature just as Robinson’s performance won me over as a viewer.
Despite the film well over 60 years old, it has aged remarkably well. A lot of this is due to the themes it explores. Some of which – how to deal with war criminals, how valid a defense is “I was only following orders – can be applied to conflicts which have continued to rage since the film’s release. Other more specific to WWII retain their resonance because of just how despicable the war was, most especially the holocaust which is often referred to in this film. This point is rammed home, when in an attempt to make Mary see sense, Wilson and her father show her some graphic footage from the concentration camps. I, like most others have seen similar holocaust images before. However they never fail to stop and make one think and make one want to weep. There is a wonderful scene of chatter around the dinner table with dialogue such as “No German in his right mind can still have a taste for war.” This scene encapsulates both of these points, obviously they are talking about WWII, but change a couple of country and villian names, and it could be a discussion happening in a pub right now. The other reason this film this film has aged so well is because it was made by Orson Welles so it looks absolutely amazing. The black and white photography is ultra crisp, this is one of those films you suspect would not look as good in colour. There is some wonderful use of shadow early in the film, prominently when portraying our war criminal on the run. In contrast the bright and sunny outdoor scenes such as Wilson and Noah’s fishing expedition are radiant and inviting.
I love this film. I am so glad it held up to another viewing for me. On a basic level it is an enjoyable romp of a chase film, but one which addresses some of what were undoubtedly the key concerns of an immediate post WWII world. Throw in two wonderful central performances from Wells and Robinson and you get a big winner. Here it is:
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter