Monday, Oct. 14, 2013

The Stranger

Orson Welles' classic on Blu-ray

By David Luhrssen
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Sneering Edward G. Robinson made his name in gangster pictures, but in The Stranger (1946) he's on the right side of the law. Robinson plays Wilson, an investigator with the Allied war crimes tribunal, an angry man who breaks the stem of the pipe he habitually smokes as he rages against the genocidal criminals he stalks. He's after one of the Holocaust's masterminds, Franz Kindler, an elusive man who destroyed all traces of himself before disappearing. To find him, he allows a small fish Nazi to escape, gambling that the minion would lead him to the big shark.

The Stranger was directed by Orson Welles, who transformed what might have been a topical thriller into an enduring psychological study, a masterpiece of film noir with a plot that raised the stakes above the level of routine crime drama.

The cinematography is superb throughout. A sequence showing the Nazi minion being tracked through a nocturnal Latin American city is a German Expressionist nightmare of unsettling geometry and sharply angled shadows. In the next scene, Wilson follows his prey to Norman Rockwell's idea of a swell town, a Connecticut picture postcard with a white church steeple touching the placid sky. But it's autumn when Wilson arrives and the shadows are lengthening across the commons. Wilson begins to suspect that Kindler has somehow reinvented himself as a history professor at an Ivy League prep school, Charles Rankin, who has just married the daughter of a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

One could quibble: it's not realistic that Wilson would pursue Kindler in a lone-wolf hunt. He could have initiated a thorough records search to confirm that Rankin is a specter, and drawn from the resources of the FBI. But like many of the great Hollywood films of that era, The Stranger's apparent illogic becomes the logic of an all-encompassing dream—a nightmare for Mary (Loretta Young), the naive woman who marries Rankin, only to fight back the realization that her husband is someone else entirely.

Welles stars as Kindler-Rankin, a charming but wary man who turns into a dangerous, hunted beast as Wilson draws near. Like many of Welles' characters, Kindler is powerful and weighty, not physically (Welles was relatively slender for this role) but occupying weighty emotional and moral space. Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" fits Kindler as little as a shoe three-sizes too small. He is evil lived large.

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