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Within just five years, Orson Welles had fallen from the position of Boy Genius with complete artistic control over his work to an industry-wide failure, forced to take on The Stranger (1946) to prove he could work within the studio system as well as anyone. His debut film Citizen Kane (1941) established him as an important artist but also managed to turn most of Hollywood against him, mostly out of fear of the powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was the model for Kane, and out of resentment for Welles' unique contract with RKO that allowed him free rein on his pictures. His next film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), potentially an American masterpiece, was butchered by the studio while Welles was off shooting the ill-fated South American project, It's All True (filmed in 1942 but not released until 1993). The truncated studio version of The Magnificent Ambersons flopped, as did his next project, the political thriller Journey into Fear (1942, credited to Norman Foster). After a four-year hiatus and a lot of bad press, Welles was eager to prove himself capable of bringing in a picture on time and within budget. The result was The Stranger, Welles' most conventional film but one which nevertheless bears some of his distinctive touches.
In the film, Welles plays Franz Kindler, an escaped Nazi war criminal who makes his way to a small Connecticut town, posing as Professor Charles Rankin. Insinuating himself into the good graces of the townspeople, particularly the local judge and his daughter Mary, Kindler/Rankin feels safe. But he is dogged by special federal agent Wilson, and even a respectable marriage to the judge's daughter can't protect him.
Welles originally wanted fellow Mercury theater player Agnes Moorehead (who appeared in both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) as the Nazi hunter Wilson. "I thought it would have been more interesting to have [him] tracked down by a spinster lady than by Eddie Robinson, but they wouldn't agree to it," Welles later said. Eager to please and re-establish himself as a desirable director, however, he went along with their suggestion. Ironically, Robinson turned out to be the difficult one, going into a "big sulk," Welles said, because he thought Welles was shooting his bad side. The director had a hard time imagining how someone as bulldog ugly as Robinson could consider himself having a bad side, but discussed the problem with leading lady Loretta Young (whose good side Welles was favoring). Young agreed to allow a switch in the angle of shots to keep Robinson happy. But she had her own issues. In the scene where Mary first encounters her future husband, she is supposed to be on her way to church but decides to go for a walk with Charles instead. A devout Catholic, Young refused to be seen skipping services, so Welles changed the scene to another day of the week when Mary was simply out walking her dog. Such were the "artistic" decisions he was faced with to prove himself cooperative and efficient.
But he accomplished his goal and the picture came in on time and under budget, with Welles submitting himself to the exact opposite deal he had with RKO. Producer Sam Spiegel (then working under the name S.P. Eagle because he thought it sounded more distinguished) had been a great admirer of Citizen Kane and wanted to work with Welles. He approached Welles to play Kindler under the direction of John Huston. But Welles asked Spiegel point blank if he could helm the project, and not wanting to lose him as an actor, the producer agreed. But to lessen the risk, Spiegel hired editor Ernest Nims to provide a tightly pre-edited shooting script and told Welles the plan had to be followed to the letter. The contract also stated that if Welles strayed outside the agreed parameters, he would be fired as director but forced to remain as the star. Welles accepted. But he was not pleased with the final product. He tried to buck Nims on a sequence set in Latin America that would have shown the fleeing Nazi. Welles filmed some of those scenes, receiving a deep wound on his leg where he stepped on a bay coffin in one action set-up. He later said the scar left by the wood slicing into his skin "always reminds me of what was lost from that movie." The critics and the public were not enamored of the picture either, but Welles' uncharacteristic concession to studio demands and the fact that it was his only picture to be truly profitable, paved the way for him to originate a project in his more familiar filmmaking style. His next movie, The Lady from Shanghai (1948), in which he cast his soon-to-be-divorced wife at that time - Rita Hayworth - would be as cinematically daring as The Stranger was conventional.
Although it doesn't come close to Welles' best work, The Stranger is still a taut thriller and much of it looks unmistakably like an Orson Welles film. The concise, suspenseful progression of the plot and the character development are streamlined in the typical studio style, but they're presented in Welles' trademark visual style, marked by moody lighting and unusual camera angles. This is particularly true in the scene where Wilson shows Mary a film of concentration camp atrocities masterminded by her husband. Cinematographer Russell Metty - who shot some scenes uncredited on The Magnificent Ambersons and worked with Welles again on Touch of Evil (1958) - effectively utilized deep-focus shots, a favorite cinematic effect in Welles' movies. There are also little jokes buried in each scene, as when Robinson is knocked cold by a gymnasts' ring and the camera glances past a sign warning "use this apparatus at your own risk." But perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Stranger is that production proceeded without delays, incidents, hassles with studio executives, or the kind of scandals that marked the shooting of It's All True. In that respect, it's the most un-Wellesian of any Orson Welles' movie.
Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Sam Spiegel (S.P. Eagle)
Screenplay: Victor Trivas, Decla Dunning, Anthony Veiller; Orson Welles and John Huston (uncredited)
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Editing: Ernest J. Nims
Art Direction: Albert D'Agostino, Perry Ferguson (production design)
Original Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Wilson), Loretta Young (Mary Longstreet Rankin), Orson Welles (Charles Rankin/Franz Kindler), Richard Long (Noah Longstreet), Philip Merivale (Judge Longstreet).
by Rob Nixon