Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles
Length: 94 min
Label: Kino Lorber
Release Date: Oct 15th, 2013
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English: LPCM Mono 2.0
- Audio commentary by film historian Bret Wood.
- Original Theatrical Trailer.
- Image gallery.
- “Death Mills” (1945, 21 min.), an informational film on the Nazi death camps (produced by Billy Wilder), footage of which appears in The Stranger.
- Orson Welles’ Wartime Radio Broadcasts – four complete programs that exemplify Welles’ blending of propaganda and entertainment: “Alameda” (Nazi Eyes on Canada, 1942), “War Workers” (Ceiling Unlimited, 1942), “Brazil” (Hello Americans, 1942), and “Bikini Atomic Test” (Orson Welles Commentaries, 1946).
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), has recently arrived on blu-ray from Kino Lorber. 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.
The 1080p AVC-encoded transfer, in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 looks absolutely wonderful thanks to a restoration by the Library of Congress from an original 35mm print after years of languishing in the public domain. There is some minor, occasional age damage—including a vertical white line on the right side of the frame—but the contrast looks fantastic, as does the grain and rich detail. This is leagues ahead of the Film Chest blu-ray release that came out 2 years ago, in which all signs of film texture had been wiped clean by overzealous filtering. 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 LPCM 1.0 mono track isn’t on par with the print and often comes across as flat, though I’m guessing this is due to issues with the source material. The dialogue is always easy to understand, but there is some notable age damage, popping, and hissing, as well as a few quiet scenes or moments where the audio quality obviously changes. The only thing that really suffers is the great score from Bronislaw Kaper, which deserves a much more robust playing ground.
In addition to the great transfer, the extras make this release well worth picking up. There is an informative commentary track from film historian, writer, and filmmaker Bret Wood that explores the making of the film and how the end result differed from Welles’ original vision. Also included is Death Mills, a roughly 20 minute short film from Billy Wilder made up of concentration camp footage. A major bonus is that four of Welles’ radio broadcasts are included: “Alameda,” “War Workers,” and “Brazil” from 1942 and “Bikini Atomic Test” from 1946, totaling about 90 minutes. There is also an image gallery and the original trailer for The Stranger.
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, Kino have done a wonderful job with its release on Blu-ray. This is a must-have for Welles fans and one of my favorite Kino blu-rays I’ve had the pleasure to review this year.