Monday, July 16, 2007

DVD Review - The Stranger

***This was the final review I wrote for BOOMj. It was never published, so here it is in full***

The Stranger (***1/2)

Directed by Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young

After Citizen Kane’s release in 1941, Orson Welles had pretty much free reign to experiment in any fashion he pleased, which turned out to be just as bad a thing as it was good. Nearly every film he would direct for the next couple decades would be over budget, over schedule and in many cases hopelessly mangled by the film studios that oversaw these productions. The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady From Shanghai and most infamously Mr. Arkadin (which received a lavish reissue last year from Criterion) were all cut and rearranged by their studios in an attempt at more commercial aspirations. Of course, these chopped up versions didn’t fare any better, but Welles continued to fight the system and follow his creative impulses wherever they took him. So it comes as a surprise that The Stranger - Welles’ little seen 1946 thriller - was something of a concession to more typical Hollywood fare, albeit one that still retained Welles’ patented noir shadows and dead serious subject matter. With this MGM release being the first substantial and relatively clean-up version of The Stranger on DVD, reassessment of this overlooked gem is all but essential for not only Welles fans, but fans of classic film in general.

Starring Welles himself as Charles Rankin, an escaped Nazi living in exile in a small Connecticut suburb with his soon to be wife Mary (Loretta Young), The Stranger’s plot is somewhat outlandish from the get go, with the FBI releasing Rankin’s former officer Konrad Meinike from prison in hopes that he will lead them to Rankin. Using Meinike as bait, a determined detective played by Edward G. Robinson is led to Harper, Connecticut where he begins to sift through some clues that could implicate Ranke as a notorious Nazi leader. It’s a typical cat-and-mouse game to be sure, but Welles builds on the tight script (which happened to be nominated for an Oscar) with his low angle camera shots, deep focus lenses and eerie atmospherics. It’s a film squarely in the tradition of classic film noir, but as a whole it tends to stand up pretty well as a straight thriller. In fact, The Stranger is most reminiscent of the 1940s work of Alfred Hitchcock, whose films Saboteur and especially Shadow of a Doubt look to be direct influences on what Welles was attempting to accomplish here.

The acting is strong throughout, with Welles turning in a nice strung-out, paranoid performance as the suspected villain, while Edward G. Robinson is the stern, authoritative force that he built his name on. Loretta Young may have the strongest role though – as Rankin’s disillusioned wife, she handles her characters arc with confidence, diving head first into her emotionally conflicted character while making Mary an identifiable and sympathetic woman. It’s true that The Stranger broke absolutely no ground for its day – which is doubly true when taking into account that the film fell within what is considered Welles’ most fertile period as a director – but the film more than makes up for its lack of ingenuity with its spectacular camera work, solid acting and inventive utilization of tension and release tactics. That’s not to mention the entertainment factor, which places The Stranger as one of Welles’ most instantly compelling and watchable films. It doesn’t have the back story of Welles’ more famous endeavors to be sure – in fact, the film came in on time and under budget and turned a profit, a rarity for Welles at any point in his career – but as a forgotten gem in the cannon of one of the all time greats, it is a more than worthy piece of history.

Before this release, there was a cheap but rare version of The Stranger on DVD that left more than a little to be desired. Although this new MGM version features better picture quality, it is still semi-grainy and occasionally choppy, but overall the presentation is nice. It is still disappointing that there are no special features on the disc though.

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