Sunday, April 19, 2015

Only a Nazi Could Say Karl Marx Wasn't German Because He Was a Jew

The fourth movie in the Orson Welles retrospective I was able to see was a DCP, but the negative was in great shape and the soundtrack cleaned up fine.

The Stranger (1946, Orson Welles) is the most straightforward, traditionally Hollywood narrative in Welles's canon. It is especially definitive of a 1940s postwar Hollywood movie. Stars, melodrama, a social message, and a formulaic plot do not hinder Welles's touch, however. The Stranger is about a Nazi who contributed greatly to the design of the most horrifying aspects of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler (Welles), who hides out in Connecticut, waiting for the next war so he can get back to his true passion--destroying his world enemies.

Welles's directorial presence again proves his mastery of staging and photographing stories. From the get go, we get the low key lighting shadows, and the locations chosen for the setting always feel creative in Welles's work. Again Welles features his device of time jump editing as a postcard of the town square with clocktower is removed to reveal the identical image. The Harper School for Boys where Kindler (hiding out as Charles Rankin) teaches provides pleasant exteriors that are photographed from high angles and are composed painterly--as evidenced in the paper trail chase and subsequent parallel Nazi chase through the gymnasium.

Many of the scenes are allowed to breathe at the small town pace of the New England locale. When one of Kindler's old Nazi associates finally finds him, the long tracking shot is also staged in a deliberately telling style as Kindler always stares ahead as he speaks to the man that clings around him--Kindler ignores whom he doesn't care to notice because his is the power of fascism.

Edward G. Robinson holds his weight as the Nazi hunter. And when he gets invited to dinner at Kindler's home and corners him in a conversation about Germany, Welles's monologue about the national identity and pathology of the German people stands out as the social message rearing its head--but in hindsight is more humorously brazen than distasteful.

The cluttered, big windowed, big mirrored pharmacy makes for some showy geometric compositions and goes back to Welles's nostalgia for Norman Rockwell style Americana. Also worth noting is the cinematographer on this picture, Russel Metty, who would go on in the 50s to work on many of the maestro of reflective surfaces and frame-within-frames movies, Douglas Sirk.

While not quite lackluster, the Nazi manhunt procedural keeps the film from Welles's stalwart tendency for surreal experimentation. The plot is something like a thriller melodrama. But chuckles abound, mainly in the third act, as the stakes are raised. The bit where Rankin is in a payphone booth and distractedly doodles a large swastika on the interior wall is laugh out loud funny. And Mary Rankin (Loretta Young) is driven to fainting hysteria at a constant crescendo of love-stricken breakdown that is out of place by today's standards, but also pretty damn funny.

The grand finale in the clocktower is another exercise in expressionist canted angles and Welles's high position, hidden in shadow, paints him as a grotesquely sinister Quasimodo. And the foreboding bells ominously suggest the death toll that is imminent. When he confronts his wife Mary, the overhead lighting hides his eyes in another example of an expressionist mask shadows can create. The dizzying spectacle also recalls the end of Journey Into Fear. It's hard to buy that the whole momentum of this tale rests on Kindler's wife unable to believe his true identity because she loves him so much, but that's what makes Hollywood so fun. Emotion takes higher importance than truth.


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