Orson Welles directed what is widely considered one of the all-time greatest films, Citizen Kane, among several other acclaimed works, but his only bona fide box office success is the rarely-discussed The Stranger. After the controversial debut of Citizen Kane and the poor performance of his second directorial effort, The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles found it hard to get work as a director. He took a few years off to focus on acting and starting a family before returning to the director’s chair for 1946’s The Stranger.
As with most of his films, Welles stars in The Stranger. He plays Franz Kindler, an infamous Nazi war criminal. After destroying all evidence of his past atrocities, Kindler moves to a small town in Connecticut where he assumes the identity of a prep school teacher and marries Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. He believes himself to be above suspicion, oblivious to the fact that a member of the Allied War Crimes Commission, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), is on his trail. Wilson is charged with the task of convincing the naive Mary of her new husband’s true identity in order to capture him.
The Stranger was produced shortly after the conclusion of World War II, and although the war was over, the American people were still living in fear of another attack. The film plays on that fear, leading audiences to believe that the person sitting next to them could be secretly plotting to strike from within. The sense of unease is perpetuated by the inclusion of actual concentration camp footage; the first film to do so. It’s interesting to see Welles take on a darker role rather than that of the hero, and he delivers a performance that is among his best. Robinson’s portrayal of Mr. Wilson is equally commendable.
With its game of cat and mouse and the exciting conclusion atop a clock tower, The Stranger is ostensibly a standard drama-thriller. But further inspection reveals it to be more complex than that; it serves as a transitory piece in Welles’ career. The film contains many of the artistic flourishes of his early works – Welles’ keen direction includes several lengthy, albeit subtle, uninterrupted takes – while laying the groundwork for the film noir classics he would go on to create, including his follow-up feature, The Lady from Shanghai.
Although overshadowed by Welles’ greater works, The Stranger has been recognized and preserved by the Library of Congress. Kino Classics’ new Blu-ray release features a high-definition transfer from the Library of Congress’ archival 35mm elements. The print shows its age with some specks and such, but the film hasn’t been presented in such clarity since it was on the big screen. It’s actually missing several seconds of footage, but the folks at Kino opted to maintain a single source rather than settling for noticeable shifts in quality. Thankfully, the insignificant cuts aren’t noticeable.
The Blu-ray’s special features are anchored by an audio commentary by Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography author Brett Wood. It’s an informative, if dry, track in which Wood points out the picture’s discrete intricacies as well as the many studio interferences. Also included is Death Mills, the informational short on concentration camps from which The Stranger borrows footage, four of Welles’ wartime radio broadcasts (“Alameda,” “War Works,” Brazil” and “Bikini Atomic Test”), the original trailer and an image gallery.
The Stranger may not be Welles’ best effort, and it’s certainly not his most celebrated work, but it’s a great film worthy of recognition. As it is in the public domain, there are dozens of poor-quality versions of the movie floating around on home video, but Kino’s Blu-ray presentation blows all previous editions out of the water in terms of both quality and extras.