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Noir-vember 2013: The Stranger (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on November 15, 2013

Oh sure, you can kill me, Mary, half the people down there.  But there’s no escape.  You had a world that closed in on you until there was only Harper.  That closed in on you and there was only this room.  And this room, too, is closing in on you.

Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) is sitting pretty.  As a high-level Nazi official and major architect of the Holocaust, he ought to have been tried for war crimes.  But his penchant for anonymity allowed him to slip through the cracks.  Now he’s teaching at a small college in the sleepy town of Harper, Connecticut, living as Charles Rankin, engaged to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a judge (Philip Merivale).  But Allied War Crimes investigator Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is looking for Kindler, and devises a plan.  He allows Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) — the only person who knows what Kindler looks like — to escape, leading him to Kindler.  But things get complicated, and Wilson needs a surefire way to identify his target.

This is my third time watching this film, one that is not particularly lauded within Welles’s filmography, and one I myself have been slightly dismissive towards.  As a grab at conventional Hollywood success, it lacks the eccentricity that marks The Lady from Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin, or the seediness and raw brutality of Touch of Evil.  But even though it isn’t as flamboyant as other Welles movies, it’s still very well done.  The cinematography may be less showy, but it’s highly accomplished work nonetheless, with very few shots that aren’t interesting or captivating in some regard.  Welles exploits high and low angles to establish power, light and dark to emphasize character traits or shifts in mood, long takes and crane or dolly shots that are impressive without calling too much attention to themselves.

And the story is the stuff of noir: evil invading an unsuspecting small town, the occasionally dubious tactics of the authorities, postwar disillusionment and horror.  There are shocking moments and unsettling psychology, tense scenes where peril lurks, people whose lives crumble and shatter in the face of unwanted revelations.  Welles didn’t write the screenplay, but you can hear his voice in some of the lengthy, eloquent monologues.  His performance is compelling, an air of cultured civility but the animal in him keeps peeking through the veneer.  However, it’s never explained how he speaks such perfect English with no trace of an accent (and Welles probably would have relished the opportunity to try on one of his goofy accents)… it’s just one of those things you accept as being necessary for the plot to work.  Robinson is all business here, with little of his usual sardonic tone, but he fits the role nicely.  I hesitate to criticize Young because her character is written to get hysterical.  I think she does well considering the material, especially at the operatic climax (the rest of the film may be a little too conventional, but those last four minutes are pure Welles).

Maybe this movie lacks a distinctive something to elevate it to greatness, but it’s a very solid and enjoyable noir with excellent craftsmanship.  Rating: Very Good (84)

IMDb
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