Although best remembered as the only box-office hit of his career — meaning it was popular with mainstream audiences — Orson Welles' 'The Stranger' is arguably his least talked about film, and it's rarely considered one of his finest efforts. There is no one reason for this, and unlike 'The Immortal Story' or 'Chimes at Midnight,' the film is readily available on home video in the U.S. After two theatrical failures, the crime thriller was made primarily to assure Hollywood of Welles' abilities as a reliable filmmaker. And the venture paid off once it became a financial success. In spite of all this, 'The Stranger' remains a uniquely Orson Welles production, showing many of his characteristics and artistic style.
With the war still fresh in the memories of Americans, the 1946 film noir is one of the first to confront the atrocities committed by the Nazi party, which could partly explain the reason for it doing well theatrically. Starring Edward G. Robinson in a brilliant performance as the government agent Mr. Wilson, it even shows actual footage of concentration camps to an appalled Loretta Young. The script, originally written by Victor Trivas but later re-written by Anthony Veiller ('The Killers,' 'Night of the Iguana'), John Huston ('The Maltese Falcon,' 'The African Queen') and Welles, plays on common fears of criminals escaping prosecution and living amongst us in secret. This time in Main Street U.S.A.
Welles plays the tensely confident and often nervous Charles Rankin, a professor at an all-boys prep school in a small New England town. It's not an especially memorable portrayal, but it gets the job done, recently marrying Mary (Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. Working for the United Nations War Crimes Commission, Robinson is on an Ahab-like hunt for the notorious Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler. One of his former associates, Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), led our protagonist to Connecticut, where we see Kindler literally trying to conceal the paper trail. It's only a matter of time, of course, before Robinson figures it out and begins working on exposing the man's true identity.
The plot is a conventional cat-and-mouse routine, showing how each side tries to trounce the other. And Welles lets his viewers know that he's all too aware of the narrative's elementary structure. Rather than seeing a demandingly strategic game of chess, we have a game of checkers, whose rules are fairly simple and straightforward. But despite the story's simplicity, Welles complicates the film by having his bad guy be a clever but grisly individual — a man, we're told, who was a leading proponent of genocide and manipulates his naïve wife without remorse. With beautiful cinematography by Russell Metty ('Touch of Evil,' 'Spartacus'), the talented director delivers an intriguing tale saturated in the dark, muddy shadows that are characteristic of the noir genre.
Welles' influence on the script can be seen in a powerful dinner conversation where he criticizes Germany's reformation efforts after the war — offering a troubling but insightful comment on a country's capacity to escape the ideological horrors of its past. We're also shown that Mr. Wilson isn't very good at playing an easy game of checkers while Rankin appears to easily defeat the barkeep, Mr. Potter (Billy House). Yet, like the two statues of the clock tower — one an archangel, the other the devil — caught in an endless circle of good versus evil, the sword will eventually strike its intended enemy and win the game.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Virgil Films & Entertainment brings Orson Welles' 'The Stranger' to Blu-ray in a Two-Disc Combo Pack, where a DVD copy of the film joins the Region Free, BD25 disc. They are housed in a blue keepcase and sit comfortably on opposing panels. When placed in the player, we're taken straight a standard menu selection.
According to the cover art, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.33:1) of 'The Stranger' was struck from 35mm elements. Whether they're original camera negatives or not remains is unclear. But from what can be seen in this high-def transfer, the print used doesn't appear to have been in the best condition. That, and the fact that the presentation suffers heavily from some serious digital tampering.
Although resolution is an improvement over previous versions, overall definition and clarity looks about average, with only a few scenes offering distinct detailing. For most of the film's runtime, the picture is disappointingly soft and visible fine textures are sadly missing. Also absent is a natural grain structure, which can be attributed to some glaringly obvious noise reduction. On top of that, contrast runs far too hot, creating awful whitewashing on various objects, while highlights often clip around faces and clothes. There are even hints of posterization in the shadows and several daylight exteriors. Deep, rich blacks are the video's strongest aspect, but compared to the DVD release in 2007 from MGM, I'd much rather prefer that presentation to this mess.
Things don't seem to get much better in the audio department with this lossy soundtrack. It's decently well-balanced with a stable and somewhat broad mid-range, giving the film an appreciable presence and clarity. Acoustics are also clean and welcoming with clear, intelligible vocals. Though presented in a 5.1 legacy codec (there's also a 2.0 option), the back speakers never play a role in the mix. The track also seems to be lacking any sense of a low-end, even in the voices of actors, but that could probably be attributed to the print used. Problems arise in some noticeable noise during certain scenes, which can be quite distracting. And towards the end of the movie, I picked up on some static which pulled me out of the story's suspense.
In the end, this is a poor presentation for an entertaining classic.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'The Stranger,' fans are given a measly selection of special features.
'The Stranger' is Orson Welles' classic tale of good versus evil, one of the first to deal with the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi party. The 1946 film noir is a stylized picture starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles as a fugitive war criminal. The Blu-ray from Virgil Films & Entertainment comes with a disappointing video transfer that shows noticeable digital tampering and average audio. Supplements are greatly wanting, making the overall package an unsatisfying purchase for fans of the movie and Welles admirers alike.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.