Reevaluating a disparaged 'Stranger'

Orson Welles plays a Nazi in hiding in his least-favorite film. Orson Welles plays a Nazi in hiding in his least-favorite film.
By Gerald Peary
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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Great film, that “Citizen Kane.’’ But the audience in 1941 stayed clear. “The Magnificent Ambersons’’ (1942) did even worse at the box office, and “The Lady From Shanghai’’ (1948), “Macbeth’’ (1950), “Othello’’ (1955), and “Touch of Evil’’ (1958) all tanked. Orson Welles might be a cinema genius, but the films he conceived were regarded as too artsy, too experimental, too elite, too self-conscious for the average moviegoer. In fact, only one film with Welles as the credited director managed a profit when it was released: “The Stranger’’ (1946), a film noir with Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, in which Welles costarred as a Nazi in hiding. There’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of that title, which is why it’s worth noting that a restored digital version is debuting in Rockport today.

Curiously, “The Stranger’’ has been the least revered of all Welles-made films among scholars and critics, who have not been swayed by the picture’s initial popularity. The French, who are Welles-crazy in every way, and enraptured by such marginal work as “Mr. Arkadin’’ (1962) and “F for Fake’’ (1977), have rejected “The Stranger’’ entirely, regarding it as impersonal, generic, bland. In America, critic Joseph McBride, usually a Welles enthusiast, offers a typical dismissal: “. . . the writing lapses into the merely implausible, and Welles’s acting into the ridiculous.’’

Those who fault the film found an ally in Welles himself. Blacklisted for four years by Hollywood as a director after the acute failure of “The Magnificent Ambersons,’’ Welles came to “The Stranger’’ humbly, with a script already written by others, the two leads cast, and with knowledge that Sam Spiegel, a hands-on producer, would surely take over the editing. But Welles had a simple objective, to prove to the studios that he could make a movie in the way of other filmmakers: on time, on budget, and without a “genius’’ attitude. Welles said he wished “. . . to show people that I didn’t glow in the dark, you know. That I could say ‘action’ and ‘cut’ just like the rest of the fellows.’’

Afterward, though, Welles opined that “ ‘The Stranger’ is the worst of my films . . . There is nothing of me in the picture.’’ Should Welles be taken at his word, and should we consider that the final damnation? Or was the 1946 public right?

One person with a revisionist view of the movie is Philip Hopkins, a Rockport resident who co-owns Film Chest, which specializes in restoring and digitizing classic and vintage films. “I think it’s a great movie,’’ he says in a telephone interview. “I love Orson Welles’s acting, he’s so creepy. It’s a very solid film, tightly edited, and without a lot of down time.’’

For the last six months, Hopkins’s company has been concentrating on a restored, high-definition video of “The Stranger,’’ converting a 35mm print in its possession to pristine video. This state-of-the-art HD (Hopkins: “It’s the best there is, unless someone finds the original negative, which has been lost’’) will have its premiere showing today at 5 p.m., at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. The screening is also the centerpiece for the Cape Ann Film Festival, which runs through Oct. 17 offering a total of 44 features, both new works and revivals of other classics including “Breathless,’’ “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’’ and Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran.’’

Hopkins is not the only person these days to look more kindly on “The Stranger.’’ For a disparaged work, it’s doing mightily on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 95 percent Tomatometer, based on favorable reviews from 19 out of 20 critics. Two well-regarded Welles experts, James Naremore and Dave Kehr, also have pointed out key virtues of the film, and how it fits the Welles oeuvre. Nobody can deny that it starts in a most recognizably Wellesian fashion, with an anxious Nazi trying to get to America through a series of shadowy, atmospheric, baroque settings shot in a characteristic way, with angled camera shots and low-key lighting. These episodes could be from “The Lady From Shanghai.’’ And there’s a virtuoso four-minute sustained shot ending in a strangulation, a patented Welles long take. Also, Welles plays Charles Rankin, a German émigré hiding out in an American private school as a history lecturer in waiting for the Nazis to rise again (a Fourth Reich). Rankin is one in a long line of corrupt, compromised characters whom the director relished playing on screen, from Charles Foster Kane to the crooked lawman Hank Quinlan in “Touch of Evil.’’

The most extraordinary scene of “The Stranger’’ is one in which representatives of the law attempt to deprogram Rankin’s wife, Mary (Loretta Young). They try to stop her from adoring her Nazi husband by showing her 16mm films of concentration camp horrors. This was the first time, in 1946, that such footage was incorporated into a studio film. Hail Orson Welles for having the conviction to bring the Holocaust to Hollywood.

For film historians, “The Stranger’’ offers a foreshadowing of “The Third Man’’ (1949), in which Welles’s Harry Lime is also a war criminal. Much like in “The Stranger,’’ the law tries an intervention with Lime’s best pal (Joseph Cotten) by showing him the innocent victims of Lime’s criminality.

Alas, there are telling differences: While Welles’s Harry Lime is the most charming and dashing of brutal villains, Welles’s Charles Rankin is nervous, unsmiling, and cold. It’s very improbable that Young’s Mary would fall in love with him. Also, Welles’s ghoulish prof is over the top, a product of Welles the director not holding in check Orson the thespian.

What keeps “The Stranger’’ from transcendence is not only Welles’s unwieldy performance but Edward G. Robinson’s too-normal-one as Mr. Wilson, the Nazi hunter. Robinson reprises his marvelous insurance investigator from “Double Indemnity’’ (1944), but here he’s going through the motions. Welles had a gender-bending plan that went by the boards: instead of Robinson, he wanted to cast Agnes Moorehead, so great in both “Citizen Kane’’ and “The Magnificent Ambersons.’’ An inspired idea: “a spinster lady,’’ in Welles’s term, chasing down Nazis.

Gerald Peary can be reached at

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