Monday, February 13, 2012

The Stranger (1946)

Directed and starred in by Orson Welles, The Stranger is a flick straight out of the film noir era, yet drastically unique as only Welles would have it.  Its Oscar-nominated screenplay written by Victor Trivas makes for an at times thrilling cat-and-mouse game between the aforementioned Welles and Edward G. Robinson.  Though its overall story is simple enough, its intricate dialogue, imperious directional cues and final culmination make it an entertaining and ever-poignant film.

The first scene starts rather abruptly with a fuming Mr. Wilson (Robinson) pacing behind the doors of the Allied War Crimes Commission, pipe in hand. The camera is angled up and slowly zooming toward him tangentially so as to put Wilson's brief soliloquy in the "god angle" - a trademark of Welles's - making it no secret as to who the authority figure is here.  This "obscenity must be destroyed" we hear but just as quickly are redirected to a maritime set where a nervous twitchy German named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) is in some sort of frenzied state.  Deploying from a boat in which Welles treats us to a signature long take filled with pans and crane-guided camera angles, Konrad meets an informant who leads him to one Franz Kindler in the Main Street, USA town of Harper, Connecticut.

It also leads Wilson to Harper who not long into his attempt at surreptitiously trailing Konrad reveals himself resulting in a foot chase through a school.  Some exaggerated angles, dark lighting and provocative score later Wilson takes a blow to the head resulting in the loss of both Konrad and his consciousness.  Well, Konrad finally rendezvous with his sought for Kindler (Welles) only he appears as no German countryman but rather an innocuous constituent of Harper named Charles Rankin who works as a Professor and is to be married that very day to a judge's daughter, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young).

The majority of the film involves Wilson's struggle to prove and convince the Longstreets that Rankin is in fact Kindler, the mastermind of the Nazi death camps, who escaped when the War went sour for the Germans.  No photo existed of the top-of-the list war criminal so it falls on Wilson to confirm that the man Konrad lead him to is indeed him.  In the face of this challenge the script shines.  There are tidbits of conversation that the cunning Wilson picks up on such as Rankin's referral to Karl Marx as a Jew not a German at a dinner party. (Wilson reasons: " Well, who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German... because he was a Jew?).  It's at that same event that Rankin states "I can't believe that people can be reformed except from within," equally as telling.

Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and
Orson Welles pose in front of the clock tower.
Another theme that sort of crescendos into the conclusion of the film is clockwork.  Rankin has a sick obsession with fixing clocks and Wilson uses this as one of the identifying factors of his culprit.  In the most distressing scenes viewers will note Rankin darting for a nearby clock to make adjustments; that, or they take place in Harper's clock tower to which Rankin voluntarily spends his time repairing.  And yes, in the spirit of such films as 2011's Hugo or 1985's Back to the Future, the clock tower provides the perfect setting for some of the The Stranger's most tantalizing moments, in its conclusion.

There is something to be said about the building psychological tension that Orson Welles crafts in his two-faced villain.  Whether it be through askance glares or timely tremors, as sly as Kindler is, Rankin has trouble holding on.  The shift from gentlemanly understatement to dramatic insanity in Rankin piloted by Welles is remarkable.  His composed monologues and angry rants might range in degree of intensity but waver none in their ability to haunt the audience.  His hysteria is foreseen earlier in the film as he tells his wife: " Murder can be a chain, Mary, one link leading to another until it circles your neck. "

At points in the film Wilson even tosses around bits of Freudian psychological lingo in regards to Mary and Charles.  These do feel somewhat out of place and forced in the script, but only because Welles and Young do such a superb job of acting it out - to spell it out for us feels redundant and too forward.

Finally, a bit of trivia: The Stranger was the first feature film to show footage of the concentration camps in World War II.  It comes in a scene when Wilson tries to appeal to a denying Mary that her husband is in fact a high ranking Nazi criminal.  It is surreal to see this dose of reality pop up in a genre of Hollywood film so famous for its fictionalized drama and stereotypical characters.  Director Orson Welles, who publicized his disgust of Fascism and the Nazi's systematic genocide at the time, appeals to the humanity in all of us.  Once again it is an unlikely juxtaposition but an incredibly effective one.  When Rankin pleads to Wilson during the film's finale as all is but lost he cites the well-exhausted argument that he was just following his given orders.  And like that, light has been shed on a bit of clockwork of Orson Welles's manufacturing.  How can the audience do anything but knee-jerkingly recall those vile and real archival shots Welles sagaciously chose to illuminate earlier in the film?  As a tiny tribute to the power of film (in this case, even within a film), but even more so as a testament to humanity, there is no forgiveness to be had from Wilson, or in that case from society - then, now and hopefully for eternity - for such a monster as Franz Kindler.

--Review by Mike Dorfman

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