Friday, July 11, 2008

Tonight's Movie: The Stranger (1946)

THE STRANGER is a small masterpiece: 95 minutes of nailbiting black and white suspense, stylishly directed by Orson Welles and acted with gusto by Welles, Loretta Young, and Edward G. Robinson.

I love watching Robinson play a cagey good guy, and he's wonderful in this film as an investigator on the trail of an infamous Nazi war criminal (Welles) who is hiding under a new identity as a teacher in a small Connecticut town. Robinson arrives in town on the same day that Welles marries lovely Loretta Young, playing the daughter of a Supreme Court justice. Robinson isn't immediately sure he's found his man, until bit by bit various clues reveal themselves.

It's a little difficult to understand Young's blind devotion to her brooding new husband, but reading between the lines, it seems that perhaps she was an "old maid" teacher -- hard to believe, when she's so beautiful -- who is happy to have her own husband and home at last. Given that small quibble, Young is excellent as the bride whose new life unravels at a startling pace.

It's fascinating that in the same year, 1946, Welles played two different men who changed their identities and came to postwar America in search of a new life. In contrast with the evil Nazi war criminal of THE STRANGER, the disabled engineer Welles played in TOMORROW IS FOREVER (reviewed here) was a benevolent soul who had adopted a child orphaned by the Nazis. The performances are so different it's hard to believe it's the same actor, and not just because of the changes in hair and makeup.

It's also of note that the young Richard Long played key roles in each film. THE STRANGER also stars Philip Merivale, Byron Keith, and Billy House. Martha Wentworth, who plays the maid, Sara, was the voice of Nanny in 101 DALMATIANS and also voiced several characters in THE SWORD IN THE STONE. The minister in the wedding scene is Neal Dodd, who was written about here.

Welles' direction of the earliest scenes, including dark alleys in Europe, calls to mind his later film THE THIRD MAN. As one might expect, he chooses striking camera angles. The ending is macabre but perfectly in keeping with the story, and the sudden imposition of the card reading "The End" provides a jolt of surprise in and of itself.

The cinematography is by Russell Metty, who also shot Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL. The stunning color New England landscapes in ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS were also shot by Metty.

THE STRANGER is available on DVD and video.

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