Monday, August 16, 2004

The Stranger

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

Unlike many of the movies Orson Welles directed, The Stranger was a popular hit when it was released. Now, sixty years later, it's not quite dismissed, but it hasn't gained in stature like Citizen Kane or infamy via a Welles-vs-studio battle like The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch of Evil. It's a thriller, a movie Welles did for a job, and not really his the way other movies are.

Still, if Welles is slumming, he's slumming in a "Steven Soderberg directing Ocean's Eleven" way, as opposed to a "Wong Kar-Wai writing Haunted Cop Shop 2" way, turning out a quality movie even as he picks up a paycheck.

World War II has just ended, and Edward G. Robinson plays Wilson, an American war-crimes investigator who cooks up a plan to let one Konrad Meinike escape in the hopes that he will lead them to a bigger prize, one Franz Kindler, described as one of the chief architects of the Final Solution whose passion for anonymity has left the Allies without a photograph. The plan works, leading Wilson to Harper, CT, but before he can learn that Kindler has reivented himself as private-school teacher Charles Rankin (Welles), Kindler has killed Meinike and hidden the body.

As they say, though, murder will out. Wilson is a dogged investigator and the new Mrs. Rankin (Loretta Young), daughter of a Supreme Court justice, has enough information to put two and two together, but is held back by her need to believe her husband isn't a monster.

Welles doesn't work with particular subtlety here. The question of whether Rankin really is Kindler is resolved decisively and early, and Ms. Young gets to do a fair amount of ranting toward the end of the movie as her character realizes who and what she has married. And there's a prominent clock tower, which often indicates a long fall coming... And that's not the only scene that's telegraphed.

But Welles is good at this. He may not be trying to subvert the audience's expectations, but he uses the tools of a mainstream thriller effectively. He shows us just enough of "Rankin" to make us believe that Kindler could effectively hide out in New England but not enough to make one wonder whether or not he's gone native, and perhaps give the character some sympathy. He sprinkles just enough quirkiness among the natives to make Harper alive but not peculiar. He uses concentration camp footage to make a point, but not in a cheap or exploitive way. If the last act is a bit over the top, well, this is a forties thriller and the paying audience had expectations. Welles meets them, and it is satisfying.

The Stranger is very much a mainstream product of its time, much more than of its auteur. If the intervening 58 years haven't seen it become more than it was previously estimated to be, neither have they exposed it as a disposable, forgettable work.

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