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Orson Welles' The Stranger: misunderstood classic or studio-system misfire...?
Kino / 95 Minutes / 1946 / Unrated / Street Date: October 15, 2013
You have to pick your battles in life, and what remains frustratingly clear in Orson Welles’ The Stranger is that the guy had pretty much given up fighting against the studio machinery constantly on his back. Welles was a mercurial guy and the tango he danced with corporate brass was never as smooth as it could have been (the director seemed to somehow thrive on discord behind the scenes), and The Stranger is proof positive of this cinematic anarchy.
On paper, it’s a perfect fit. Welles plays a Nazi officer in post-WWII America who takes on a new identity in an attempt to start a new life in the free world. But Edward G. Robinson is on his trail: in a role originally designed for Agnes Moorehead (!), the film noir staple plays the role of an American agent hell-bent on tracking down any Nazi monster trying to do what “Professor Charles Rankin” (Welles) is doing. It’s a brilliantly designed cat-and-mouse game that should play like gangbusters.
But The Stranger – while implicitly of value to hardcore Welles devotees – is notable for its thinness. One gets the impression in certain scenes that Orson phones it in, that he couldn’t give a rip about the drama or storytelling at hand. There are moments when The Stranger stuns with gritty, thrilling excitement, but for every one of these, there are five where the fire is just not there. As Welles himself might have said, if he’d had full control of it, The Stranger could have been a classic.