September Film: The Stranger Analysis

Welles The Stranger 6

The Stranger was the third Orson Welles directorial effort to see the light of day and the dark of cinema screens, following Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Production lasted from late September until 21 November 1945, with the picture released the following July.

Welles’ earliest take on film noir – preceding The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Touch of Evil (1958), which is often considered the genre’s final flourish – the drama depicts the unrelenting Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an agent of the United Nations War Crimes Commission, on a hunt for the Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), who has moved to a small town in Connecticut and adopted the name Charles Rankin.

Rankin has taken a position as a college prep school teacher, and just married Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), who happens to be the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. He is traced by Wilson by means of a former associate, Konrad Meinike, who journeys from Latin America before meeting his demise. Rankin otherwise expends much of his time repairing the 300-year-old clock – with eschatological automata, described as ‘late 16th century, probably by Habrecht of Strasbourg’ – which crowns the belfry of the church in the town square. This will be the site of the film’s climactic pursuit.

The Stranger was the first commercial film to use documentary footage from the Nazi concentration camps: Wilson shows clips to Mary as he compels her to turn against her husband. Several scenes were taken from Nazi Concentration Camps (1946), a documentary shot and assembled by the filmmakers George Stevens and Ray Kellogg, and the lawyer and politician James B. Donovan, which was used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials. The documentary shows D-Day celebrations alongside images from the Duben labour camp and the Dachau concentration camp.

But while the film made public such sharply relevant material, continues to suggest grand political themes and allegories, and shows Welles in a familiar role as a decidedly arch villain, at heart The Stranger is the unravelling of a small-town murder mystery, which drew comparisons upon release with Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

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In late 1941, Orson Welles became involved in President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, devised towards fostering friendly relations with Latin America. Appointed a goodwill ambassador by Nelson Rockefeller, who had recently been established Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Welles was sent to Brazil, and asked to document the annual Carnaval as it took place in Rio de Janeiro prior to the start of Lent. He eventually spent six months without compensation touring Latin America on behalf of the OCIAA.

His work filming the Carnaval entwined with his ongoing project It’s All True, originally conceived as an omnibus, melding documentary and the sort of docufiction characteristic of the films of Robert J. Flaherty, and to consist of three or four shorts set in North America, the first a ‘Story of Jazz’ with collaboration from Duke Ellington. Inspired by his time in Brazil, Welles began to revise his concept for It’s All True, switching the focus to Latin America, with the ‘Story of Jazz’ to become instead the story of samba, and the film’s other narratives relocated.

Welles was a firm supporter of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, and felt himself obliged to carry out this work in Latin America – even though it meant a rush to finish shooting on Journey into Fear, the spy film which would eventually be released in February 1943. Welles starred in and produced the picture, with many film critics and film historians also crediting him with the direction, ostensibly the work of Norman Foster. Welles later told Peter Bogdanovich that the film was such a rush, the person directing had simply been whoever was closest to the camera, though he still ascribed to Foster the directorial credit.

More seriously, it was during this spell in Latin America that Welles experienced the difficulties with RKO which would result in him losing control of his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles was still in the process of editing Ambersons when he left for Brazil, but as the studio shifted course – with the resignation of president George Schaefer, and Nelson Rockefeller leaving the board of directors – Welles found himself increasingly without supporters. From his edit of 131 minutes, RKO cut more than 40 minutes and reshot the film’s ending, replacing Welles’ elegiac close with a cheerier finale that stuck to the text of the novel, by Booth Tarkington, on which the film was based.

RKO released their version of The Magnificent Ambersons in July 1942, and subsequently withdrew funding from It’s All True – which they had agreed to co-produce with the OCIAA – before severing their contract with Welles entirely. Welles would continue to lament the fallout, once remarking ‘They destroyed Ambersons and it destroyed me.’ Thus from the late summer of 1942, he returned to radio.

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Based on an original story by Victor Trivas, and with Sam Spiegel signed on to produce, The Stranger was initially intended for John Huston. But when Huston became unavailable, Welles was afforded the chance to direct his first film in almost four years. He had to agree to importunate terms: if The Stranger failed to come in on schedule and within budget, he would owe International Pictures all of his immediate earnings above $50,000 a year. On the other hand, a successful film offered the possibility of a four-movie deal and increased creative control.

While Welles worked on a rewrite of the script, it remains unclear how much of his material made its way into the final picture. Ernest J. Nims was given editorial control by International, and reportedly cut 30 pages before filming began. Welles called Nims ‘the great supercutter, who believed that nothing should be in a movie that did not advance the story. And since most of the good stuff in my movies doesn’t advance the story at all, you can imagine what a nemesis he was to me.’

Still, shooting in long takes – with one scene between Kindler and Meinike in the woods stretching four minutes – Welles was able to exert something of his own vision. He stated of Nims, ‘I fought him tooth and nail all through it and won in the case of The Stranger‘ – citing the exception of an early sequence which would have depicted Meinike’s flight through Latin America before reaching the town of Harper, Connecticut, whose excision may have been enough to explain Welles’ lingering ambivalence towards the finished work. In general, early scenes meant to build suspense and develop character were shorn to reduce the running time and emphasise the dramatic plot.

Welles was able to depend on his lead actress, Loretta Young, for support in disputes with Spiegel. In the scene where Kindler attempts to kill Mary, who has finally uncovered her husband’s brutal and duplicitous past, the producer demanded a closeup of Young in the middle of a medium shot. Welles felt that this ‘would have been fatal. I told that to Loretta, and she said, “Well then, we’re not going to make it.”‘ When Spiegel insisted, Young brought in her agent to intervene: ‘Imagine getting a star’s agent in to ensure that she wouldn’t get a closeup!’, Welles recalled, saying of Young, ‘She was wonderful.’

Welles’ on-set relationship with his other star, Edward G. Robinson, proved more challenging. In an interview with the BBC’s Leslie Megahey, who produced the two-part Arena special The Orson Welles Story in 1982, Welles recounted their differing outlooks:

‘LM: …Welles originally told the studio he wanted a woman to play [Edward G.] Robinson’s part, Agnes Moorehead. 

OW: I thought it would have been much more interesting to get Boorman [Kindler, Welles’s role] tracked down by a spinster lady than by Edward Robinson, but they wouldn’t agree to it.

LM: And Robinson wasn’t actually a crony of yours, or a…

OW: No, I didn’t know him at all. And he had gone into a big sulk the first week. I couldn’t understand what it was about and he said, “You keep shooting me on my bad side.” Now can you imagine Eddie Robinson having a bad side? And I was shooting him that way because Loretta Young’s side was the other one, you see. So I told her about it and she said, “All right, shoot me on my bad side and keep him happy.” [laughter] But he was an immensely effective actor. And he was very good in the picture.

LM: Welles’s favorite sequences in The Stranger are the scenes of small town life. Like Robinson’s visits to the drugstore and his dialogue with the bit part player Billy House. Robinson wasn’t so keen on those scenes.

OW: He was very unhappy about the drugstore situation. He kept going back to the drugstore and playing checkers with the druggist, who never moved, always sat in his chair. And that was Billy House, a burlesque comedian that I found and put in the movie. And Billy House had a very unhappy first week too, as well as Eddie. I saw him mournfully standing around between takes. I finally took him away and said, “Billy, tell me, what’s troubling you?” And he said, “Either give it to me or to the other son of a bitch but let’s decide.” And it was his stand-in. He thought the stand-in was there to play the part in case he wouldn’t be good enough. He just saw that other fat man. He said, “Give it to him, I don’t care. Just let me know where I am.” He was a sweet man. So he cheered up a lot after that. But Eddie’s point was that he was a supporting actor and why should a scene go to him? Scenes didn’t go to supporting actors in Hollywood in those days unless they were featured players, so well beloved and so highly paid by the week by the studio that they had to be given. So if they were, you know, any of those wonderful people – there were an awful lot of great character people. But here was an unknown actor, given great hunks of scenes that should have gone to the money, you know. And he was very unhappy about that. I tried to persuade him that it wouldn’t cost him anything.’

Welles said that he did The Stranger ‘to show people that I didn’t glow in the dark, you know. That I could say “action” and “cut” just like all the other fellas.’ He achieved his part, completing shooting under budget and a day ahead of schedule. The Stranger would prove Welles’ clearest success at the box office, costing $1.034 million and eventually grossing $3.216 million fifteen months after its release. However International Pictures, too quick to dismiss the film’s prospects, reneged on their four-movie proposal, and Welles instead turned to the Broadway musical Around the World, before directing The Lady from Shanghai for Columbia Pictures come 1947.

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‘Orson Welles plainly gets much pleasure out of playing villainous roles, to judge by his choice and performance of bogey-men in the past. And now, in his new film, “The Stranger,” which he directed and in which he plays the title role, he is proving beyond any question that he loves to scare people to death. For in this custom-made melodrama, which came to the Palace yesterday, he is playing the role of the big-brain behind the Nazi torture camps. Nothing less, mind you! He’s the inventor of their monstrous mass-murder machine. […]

It is true that Mr. Welles has directed his camera for some striking effects, with lighting and interesting angles much relied on in his technique. The fellow knows how to make a camera dynamic in telling a tale. And it is true, too, that Edward G. Robinson is well restrained as the unrelenting sleuth and that Billy House does a superb job as a small-town clerk and gossiper. But the whole film, produced by S. P. Eagle, comes off a bloodless, manufactured show. The atom-bomb newsreels on the same bill are immeasurably more frightening.’ Bosley Crowther, review for The New York Times (1946)

‘The Stranger is socko melodrama, spinning an intriguing web of thrills and chills. Director Orson Welles gives the production a fast, suspenseful development, drawing every advantage from the hard-hitting script from the Victor Trivas story. Plot moves forward at a relentless pace in depicting the hunt of the Allied Commission for Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals for a top Nazi who has removed all traces of his origin and is a professor in a New England school. Edward G. Robinson is the government man on his trail. Loretta Young is the New England girl who becomes the bride of the Nazi.’ Variety review (1946)

‘With the typical perversity of humankind, it follows that the only movie Orson Welles directed that turned a profit on its original release — The Stranger (1946) — is also his least celebrated. A film historian friend of mine recently grumbled that a “well-behaved Welles” wasn’t really Welles. I understand his point, but it’s my take that it was less a matter of Welles being well-behaved on The Stranger than it was the fact that the material was peculiarly suited to his cinematic world of obsessives. Here, after all, is a film that gave him two obsessives for the price of one — one a rank villain and the other a hero of dubious morality in his own right. It also afforded Welles the chance to bring his expressionist style to an otherwise Norman Rockwell-like New England, which allowed him to lay bare the corruption beneath the facade of a sunlit vision of small town America. In its own way, The Stranger is similar to Alfred Hitchock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) on one side and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) on the other. All this (and a grotesquely Baroque climax that must have warmed Welles’ heart) is simply unforgettable, and makes for a movie that I find hard not to love.’  Ken Hanke, review for Mountain Xpress (2012)

Watch The Stranger at Culturedarm.