After the epochal but underappreciated (at the time) Citizen Kane and the ambitious, studio-neutered The Magnificent Ambersons (a great film nonetheless), Orson Welles was eager to prove he could play nice and make a regular studio picture. In signing on to direct and star in The Stranger, the tale of an investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who tracks down a former high-ranking Nazi (Welles), now living an idyllic life as a rural schoolteacher with an upstanding wife (Loretta Young), Welles agreed to a contract that included financial punishments were he unable to bring the movie in on time and on budget. He succeeded and the film even earned a profit, something Welles had not previously achieved. The Stranger is not often counted among Welles’ great works but, despite its conventional sheen, it’s as audacious (it was the first commercial film to use concentration camp documentary footage) and as unique as we’ve come to expect from him. It’s imperfect but it’s Welles through and through.
Welles’ camera was always and always would be kinetic and expressive. Here, though, aided by Bronislaw Kaper’s aggressive score, it’s positively frantic. This may be a post-World War II movie but, in its intense and ever-building paranoia, it predicts the Cold War thrillers that were soon to come.
In order to abide by his contract, Welles had to make concessions. In most cases, this simply amounted to not arguing as much as he usually would about the cuts and transgressions the studio made against him and his film. Most of this happened at the screenplay stage, where a Latin America-set prologue and early character development between Welles’ and Young’s characters were excised. Still, more of Welles remains than one may suppose. The long takes (one goes on a full four minutes); the massive and immersive sets (an entire town square lined with workable interior shops and other buildings was constructed); all of his trademarks are there. Most of Welles’ films were compromised to a greater extent than we’d like. With The Stranger, he may have been more submissive about being steamrolled but he still made something worth watching, just as he always did.