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
Kino Lorber brings 'The Stranger' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase with a glossy slipcover, the Region Free, BD50 disc goes straight to a static main menu with a poster-like photo and music playing in the background.
According to information on the back of the box, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of 'The Stranger' was mastered from archival 35mm elements which were preserved by the Library of Congress. Compared to the 2011 Blu-ray release from Virgil Films, this high-def presentation offers a noticeable improvement, though it's still far from perfect. It's apparent there were minimal restoration efforts done and the film is presented here as is, warts and all, which is more or less a blessing in disguise.
The 1.33:1 image displays strong definition and clarity for most of the film's runtime and overall resolution is rather excellent. Fine lines and textures in various scenes are nicely detailed with some particularly revealing close-ups. A thin layer of natural grain washes over the picture and remains consistent throughout. However, white specks, dirt and scratches are also a constant nuisance, especially one thin scratch on the print that first appears on the left side of the frame at the beginning and moves to the right side for the last twenty minutes or so. Still, contrast is better balanced and accurate for the most part, as there a few instances of blooming in the highlights. Black levels, too, are often rich and true with good gradational details, but some sequences appear a tad faded and murky. In the end, this is a good presentation of the film.
Things don't change all that much in the audio department with this uncompressed PCM monaural soundtrack. Vocals are cleanly and intelligibly delivered in the center, and overall imaging comes with strong acoustical details. The design is not particularly dynamic, but the mid-range is nicely balanced and well-defined, providing the soundstage with an appreciably broad presence. Bass is pretty limited though there's just enough to give the music and the voices of actors some mild weight. Like the video, however, the lossless mix is true to its source with minimal effort made at delivering the cleanest possible presentation. There's a good amount of air and noise in the background that's audible throughout, and several instances of popping, cracking and hissing tend to distract. There are also moments where overall volume drops a couple decibels. All in all, it's still a good track and an improvement over its counterpart.
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. Kino Classics brings this largely underestimated classic to Blu-ray with a strong audio and video presentation, though it can still benefit tremendously from a more thorough restoration. Although supplements appear light and wanting, they are quite enjoyable and insightful, making the overall package a relatively good purchase for fans of both the film and Welles's oeuvre in general.
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.