Sunday, August 12, 2007

Orson Welles' The Stranger DVD

I'm a great fan of Orson Welles. I always have been ever since I heard the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast as a child, then years later when I discovered Citizen Kane. Heck, I was even a fan of all those television ads he was forced to do in his later years.

A local DVD rental store in Minneapolis has stocked all of Welles' movies currently on DVD, although many of them are cheap imports. It's the only was I was able to discover The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, and this little 1946 film called The Stranger. Imagine my surprise, then, so see The Stranger reissued under MGM's Film Noir label.

This is generally regarded as one of Welles' lesser movies, since it was essentially a studio picture for hire. Poor Orson, already in exile from the Hollywood system, despite making the greatest movie of all time (Kane) and the first of many mutilated masterpieces (Ambersons), trying to prove that he can work within the rules of the system. Prove that he can be a good "team player." He remarked years later that he could have had a very steady, successful career had he followed this route. Fortunately, his genius could not be controlled nor contained. We are all the better for it.

I think The Stranger is a terrific movie, a masterful piece of noir. It's always a thrill to see the young Orson Welles on the big screen. We have so few opportunities to see that young face from Citizen Kane, before age kicks in, and the weight comes on, and the portly, bearded Orson Welles takes over.

You could say this is a more formulaic sort of picture, a story of a Nazi in hiding in small-town America, being hotly pursued by the great Edward G. Robinson, but I think that says more about Welles' greater achievements than anything. His pictures were so unpredictable, so random, so completely unexpected, and so dark. He was film noir before noir existed. So perhaps that skews our expectations here. I would suggest that we put that aside.

There's one thing in The Stranger that really stands out for me, and it's the final chase sequence at the end, located in a church bell tower. Movie fans will draw the obvious, menacing parallels to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Tim Burton's first Batman (am I still wrong to like that one?). It all, of course, goes back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but I think Welles take is the definitive one, the darkest, the most exciting. I'm amazed at how quickly he absorbed Gregg Toland's groundbreaking cinematic style. It's in evidence here, and points to the purely visual style that would mark Welles' European period.

And, in the end, what you have is a really entertaining picture. Loaded with suspense, intrigue, a little bit of humor here and there, and some excellent performances. I don't think this movie's obscurity will last with a prominent DVD release such as this. It deserves to be admired and enjoyed by audiences today, and should belong in your movie collection.

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