Depending on your point of view, Orson Welles is either peripheral or central to film noir; peripheral in that he didn’t make many films that are considered to be noir, but central because of the influence of Citizen Kane, made when he was only 25 years old. While not a film noir, the chiaroscuro lighting of Citizen Kane, the low-angle photography and nonlinear structure had a great influence on film noir as it developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Welles is considered to have made three ventures into noir territory with Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil and this overlooked gem — The Stranger — which remains his first, and maybe his only commercial success. The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles himself, has an excitement largely generated by Welles’ own performance, which is intense — to say the least. It’s a sweet addition to the noir barrel, with a great opening and an unbearably fine performance from Orson Welles.
Never one to miss a trick, Orson Welles had already located some of the markers of film noir — a genre which had not even been named or identified when he made The Stranger. In The Stranger, Welles included plenty mood lighting and in many varieties also; a paranoid lead and a drama which suggetsed, as in that great Dick Powell vehicle Cornered, that the Nazi threat was not over, because the villains had dispersed themselves throughout the world. How doubly alarming to find such a vile Nazi as this however, in small town Connecticut.
Orson Welles — directing himself once more in The Stranger, his third film, is a powerhouse. The difficulties attached to being an artist in the commercial world of Hollywood is a theme that is tackled from time to time in noir — best of all in In a Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray. In fact, there is a strong suggestion that the lonely place of In a Lonely Place refers precisely to Hollywood itself, and what a lousy town it is to be in if you are first and foremost, an artist. It’s a problem that Orson Welles dealt with off and on, and one that he was dealing with head on in The Stranger. Having made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons — two highly rated movies that were box office failures in terms of all-important returns — Welles was determined to make a commercial picture to show that he could draw the crowds as well as the plaudits.
There are however some strikingly non-commercial aspects to The Stranger. First in line has to be the concentration camp footage that Welles included — this was very likely the first time this footage had been seen outwith a newsreel. When Welles first saw the camp footage, he was determined that it was to be included somewhere, somehow, and this film was in his eyes the perfect vehicle.
It’s hard to say what people would have made of this at the time, but it certainly makes for high melodrama, as the shadows of the dead dash across the face of Loretta Young, as she stares appalled into the flickering light the images reflect upon her face.
Loretta Young Watches the First Widely Released Footage of the Camps
But here is the rub. By 1946, Welles was in demand as an actor, but the fallout that accompanied the end of his RKO Radio Pictures contract in 1942 still burdened him with a reputation of being a difficult artist who made strange films that didn’t make money. Welles received the invitation to make a film from Sam Spiegel, a Polish-born producer attached to the small International Pictures operation, and Welles took the offer, later explaining: “I wanted to do a film to prove to the industry that I could direct a standard Hollywood picture, on time and on budget, just like anyone else.”
While it’s true that The Stranger is closer to the ideal of a normal Hollywood picture than Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, it is in fact barely ordinary — although Welles scholars and purists don’t see it this way, and tend to overlook it as a consequence.
This is not fair, as The Stranger features both great acting and directing from the young master, and is not to be overlooked by anyone with an interest in 20th century movies. There is a lot bubbling beneath the surface in The Stranger, when you consider that yes, while Orson Welles' character may be a Nazi, even the harmless Mr Potter in the local store is a cheat at checkers and obssessed with conspiracy.
The marriage between Welles' character and his wife is passionate only insofar as it is somewhet mad, and in the final analysis merely just the mockery of a marriage, descending into another great nor theme, being the paranoia lurking in suburbia. The visit that the stranger makes to her family home at the start is like a mini-movie in itself, as the two slowly encounter each other and the sinister undertones build.
The Stranger was not only Welles’ first success, but it was the only film that he directed that he did not prepare the script for. Yes, it is a fairly conventional piece, and the dynamic storytelling of the opening quarter of an hour seems to give way to some less necessary twists and turns as we wait for the inevitable.
The inevitable in The Stranger, of course, is the showdown in the clocktower which we know is coming from a very early stage. A portion of the film is taken up however with the paranoia of the Loretta Young character, as the wife who refuses to believe that anything could be bad in her suburban dream. This as you know is one of the great side-themes of noir, and as such places this film more firmly than you may imagine, right in the dark depths of the canon.
You Can Watch The Stranger (1946) at YouTube
You can also download a copy of The Stranger from archive.org (LINK BELOW)