The first film in Laois Library Film Club’s Spring season of classic films is the 1946 film noir thriller ‘The Stranger’.
‘The Stranger’ was directed by Orson Welles, and he also stars in the film and co-wrote the screenplay. A legendary figure in Hollywood cinema, Welles is best remembered for his extraordinary directorial debut ‘Citizen Kane’ which he made for the now-defunct RKO studios. An extraordinary protégé, who had already proved his genius on stage and radio, Welles was just twenty-five years-old when he directed, co-wrote, starred in and produced this film. A moral tale themed on the life of the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane was an expose of corporate greed, villainy and hubris. Hearst hated it and used his power to both undermine Welles and thwart the film’s successful release. Despite rave critical reviews, including one by Bosley Crowther referring to it as “the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood” the film nonetheless fared out poorly at the box office, impacted heavily by Hearst’s refusal to allow his newspapers to provide publicity for the film. It was only in the decades afterwards that the movie’s reputation was restored. Recognised as a masterpiece, ‘Citizen Kane’ has since frequently been referred to as the greatest film ever made.
Stung by Citizen Kane’s initial commercial failure, RKO nevertheless agreed to permit Welles to direct his second picture ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. However, the studio sought to rein-in the young protégé, taking away the unbridled creative freedom he had with Citizen Kane. While Kane wrote, directed and produced the film, the studio butchered the final print, cutting the running time from 148 minutes to just 88 minutes. No film could withstand that level of editing and, while ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ is a fine film, it leaves the viewer feeling that something is missing – that ‘something’ being an hour of lost footage. Welles was distraught. Interviewed many years later for Barbara Leaming’s 1985 biography, he remarked “Of course I expected that there would be an uproar about a picture which, by any ordinary American standards, was much darker than anybody was making pictures. There was just a built-in dread of the downbeat movie, and I knew I’d have that to face, but I thought I had a movie so good—I was absolutely certain of its value, much more than of Kane … It’s a tremendous preparation for the boarding house [scene] … and the terrible walk of George Minafer when he gets his comeuppance. And without that, there wasn’t any plot. It’s all about some rich people fighting in their house.”
While the interference of RKO studios robbed Welles of his picture and the world of a masterpiece, the director had more pressing issues at hand. The heavily edited studio version of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ flopped with a loss of around $620,000 and Welles had gone from cause celebre to box office poison. Aside from a brief stint co-directing ‘Journey into Fire’ (and being fired by RKO while still on set!), he did not work again until RKO the studio offered him the contract for tonight’s movie ‘The Stranger’. The film exemplifies Welles’s bravura directing skills: his extraordinary use of shot, framing and expressionist lighting combining with characterisations of psychological depth and a gripping suspense narrative. Drawing on the tropes of the ‘home invasion’ films of the 1940s, the movie has parallels with Hitchcock’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt’. In both films, a seeming ordinary individual becomes part of a family unit, but a dark past slowly comes to light.
The plot of ‘The Stranger’ concerns the hunt for a Nazi war criminal called Fritz Kindler who has managed to the United States and acquire a new identity. Edward G Robinson plays the role of Wilson, an official from the United Nations War Crimes Commission who has been assigned to the case. With little to go on other than the knowledge that his quarry has a fondness for repairing clocks, Wilson tracks him down to a small town in rural Connecticut. Despite having found this lead, he soon discovers that Kindler is a ruthless and cunning opponent who will stop at nothing to evade justice.