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Flashback: on 1946’s The Stranger

Orson Welles was probably still reeling in 1945, from the stress of the back-to-back tumult of directing both 1941’s “Citizen Kane” and 1942’s “The Magnificent Ambersons”. The first was ceaselessly hounded, and nearly suppressed, by one of the most powerful men in America at the time. The latter was drastically recut by the studio and released in a severely truncated form. Of course, both are considered among the greatest motion pictures ever created, by an indisputable genius. The legacy holds up-both are masterworks. And the pair also share the distinction of being box office bombs. So what’s a genius to do?

In 1946, Mr. Welles released the most conventional film he ever directed. The end result? It was a bona fide hit. This is usually when I say, “screw the masses”. So, yeah, that’s what I’m saying. “The Stranger” is not an abomination…it’s simply average. Welles himself portrays Franz Kindler, an escaped Nazi hiding incognito in a small town in Connecticut as Professor Charles Rankin. Edward G. Robinson is our Nazi hunter, Mr. Wilson. And Loretta Young is Kindler/Rankin’s unsuspecting wife, Mary. It’s a simple little noir, nothing special, high on style–short on complexity. And Welles and “simple” just doesn’t mix for me.

Oh, it’s difficult to blame Orson–the poor man was barely ever able to bring one of his works to the screen, without massive studio interference. I saw his 1952 “Othello” in a Manhattan revival house over two decades ago. And while it’s still marvelous, you wonder what he could’ve done with a real budget, along with a standard shooting schedule (“Othello” filming was completed with sporadic shoots over the course of more than three years). It’s nice to dream, isn’t it.

“The Stranger” does sport some nice Wellesian cinematic flourishes though (a paper chase through the woods, some intense focus on games of checkers). And Robinson gives a solid performance, but the acting of both Welles and Young was a bit too obvious. And all that clock nonsense to set up the “Hitchcockian” finale. Again, it isn’t horrible, but from Orson you expect so much more. Anyway, he followed it up by helming “The Lady from Shanghai”, his ambitious version of “Macbeth”, and the immortal co-starring role in the spectacular “The Third Man”. So–all is forgiven.

Grade:  B-

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