Though often neglected alongside his masterpiece Citizen Kane (1942) or most beloved noir film Touch of Evil (1958), Orson Welles’ excellent, if understated small town thriller, The Stranger (1946), had nonetheless seen two previous blu-ray releases in the USA, and has recently arrived on blu-ray from Olive Films, in what is arguably the best BD release thus far. An important post-war film, The Stranger is Welles’ suspenseful story of a fugitive Nazi loose in small town America and the investigator hot on his trail.
A man from the United Nations War Crimes Commission, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robison), follows Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a concentration camp commander allowed to leave prison in the hope that he will lead Wilson to Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), a leading member of the Nazi party who had evaded detection and fled to the U.S. Kindler has moved to a small town in Connecticut and changed his name to Charles Rankin. Meinike finds his house, but meets his lovely, young fiancée Mary (Loretta Young) instead. She points him in Rankin’s direction and they meet secretly in the woods. Unfortunately for Meinike, Rankin is more interested in protecting his identity and kills Meinike, hiding his body in the woods.
Charles and Mary are married, but strange events begin to occur around town, including the poisoning of Mary’s beloved dog and the discovery of Meinike’s body. Wilson figures out that Rankin is Kindler, but has little evidence and needs Mary’s testimony before he can make an arrest. Charles, meanwhile, has convinced Mary that he has to go on the run for a completely different reason and she swears her loyalty. When Wilson and her family show her concentration camp footage, her certainty begins to crack and she is pushed to the edge of hysteria. Will Charles kill her before she faces the truth?
Though Welles considered it perhaps his worst film, mostly a work for hire piece, The Stranger was a box office success and was nominated for an Academy Award for the script. It also convinced the studio that he could be a team player after his first two sprawling, expensive works, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Despite Hollywood interference in terms of script and editing, Welles’ directing is unmistakable and stylish with interesting, angled framing, long shots, and detailed sets from designer Perry Ferguson. Welles is great at creating atmosphere and suspense and successfully maintaining it throughout the film.
The script was written by Victor Trivas (Where the Sidewalk Ends) and reworked by Anthony Veiller (The Killers), Welles himself, and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon). There are similarities between The Stranger and other films from the period, including Welles’ interest in small town American in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the clock references, secret identities, and thriller tone of The Third Man (1949), and the evil underbelly of small town American from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Though many other thrillers would go on to address the problem of Nazism, Welles’ Rankin/Kindler is an attractive, charismatic, and intelligent portrait of human evil. This was also the first film released after WWII to show real footage from concentration camps, especially powerful at a time when the world was struggling to believe the camps existed at all. Fascism was a major concern for Welles and he was convinced it would find ways to rear its ugly head even after the war was over.
Welles is excellent as the charismatic Rankin. His speeches about fascism are truly chilling, but he is a likable enough character that we follow him along until the inevitable conclusion. Edward G. Robinson is also likable as the investigator in a role similar to the character he played in Double Indemnity, but Welles far overshadows him and it would have been interesting to see Welles’ original choice for the role, Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane). Loretta Young (The Accused) is good as Rankin’s wife driven to the edge of hysteria and essentially provides the emotional core of the film. The supporting cast is rounded out by a number of memorable side characters: Martha Wentworth (Daughter of Dr. Jekyll) as Mary’s maid, Billy House (Bedlam) as the pharmacy owner, Konstantin Shayne (Vertigo) as Meinike, and Richard Long (House on Haunted Hill) as Mary’s earnest brother.
Olive’s 1080p AVC-encoded transfer, in an aspect ratio of 1.35:1 looks better than either of the previous releases of The Stranger. Film Chest’s first release suffered from excessive DNR, while Kino’s 2013 release looked much more organic, yet suffered from problems stemming from the occasionally rough condition of the source material. The Olive restoration offers a more organic, filmic look and feel, while still removing any distracting celluloid damage. Though The Stranger isn’t technically a noir film, it has been sometimes labelled as such because of its beautiful noir-like visuals from cinematographer Russell Metty (Touch of Evil), which look phenomenal here.
The DTS-HD 2.0 track is on par with the print and seems to have a bit more body than on previous releases. The dialogue is always easy to understand, there are no obvious pops, crackling, or hiss, but the sound still retains its vintage quality.
In addition to the great transfer, the extras make this release well worth picking up. There is an informative commentary track from film historian, Nora Fiore, which delves deeply into the production history of The Stranger, as well as the broader cultural context in which it was made. There is also a trailer and a new essay by film historian, Jennifer Lynde Barker.
Though many may consider The Stranger to be one of Welles’ more average and accessible works, I have to say that even his most mediocre films that suffer from a degree of Hollywood meddling are more interesting than the best works of many other directors from the period. The Stranger is a compelling post-war thriller and comes highly recommended. Between the fantastic new transfer and generous heaping of special features, Olive Films have done a wonderful job with its release on Blu-ray. This is a must-have for Welles fans and one of my favorite Olive Blu-rays I’ve had the pleasure to review this year.