Friday, August 6, 2010

Oscar Noir: The Stranger (1946)

Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) is very much a companion piece to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), though it is nowhere near as good. Set in a small Connecticut town shortly after World War II, it features Edward G. Robinson as a War Crimes Commission investigator hot on the trail of an infamous Nazi mastermind who has, post-war, infiltrated the ranks of America’s core community. That’s right folks – the darkness is no longer at the edge of town. It’s comfortably nested within us.

But who is this mysterious villain, this poisonous inkblot within our humble inner workings? It’s Welles himself, of course, the talented thespian who loved to play bad. He’s working as a school teacher, presumably so he can corrupt young minds and develop a Fourth Reich, though his school days are never explored. Nor is his existence as a threat, until he is pushed to be one. The Stranger is about a hunt for a contaminant that is neither hidden nor threatening, and thus this film is a series of missed opportunities.

We learn right away that Welles is the villain, a narrative choice to keep the audience aware of the threat the characters can’t see coming. This works for Hitchcock in Shadow because the impact of that realization on the main character (an adoring teenage girl) is the crux of that film’s drama. That’s her journey, from naivety to emotional deconstruction.

Loretta Young plays a similar character here, a beloved town daughter who unwittingly wed the hidden Nazi. The film gets a few strong beats out of her character, as her picturesque life crumbles down around her. But she isn’t the focus here. This isn’t her story.

In The Stranger, Eddie G. is our hero, a detective digging into a mystery…a mystery we’ve already solved. And so we spend the movie waiting for him to catch up, and that experience is a frustrating one. There is no threatening urgency to the pursuit, no time-sensitive or perilous element to the townspeople who’ve been invaded, as Welles' Nazi really just wants to be left alone. He’s not working on a big plan. He’s just living. His crimes are in the past, and since we understand him to be a Nazi – and thus innately evil – we want him to be caught. But really we’re un-invested, yawning and rubbing our eyes as we wait for it to happen.

Welles provides plenty of Noir-ish atmosphere for us to chew on, particularly in the shadowy opening sequence. And the acting is strong – Welles is typically and powerfully dramatic, and Robinson is devilishly enigmatic. He’s so good, I sometimes think we should just edit all his scenes together from all his movies and just watch that – it’d be a lot more interesting and entertaining than what we have here.

A few months back, I was bored and looking to pass the time with a cheap thriller, so I cued up The Stepfather (2009) on my Netflix Instawatch. That movie was bad. Really, really bad. But what it did right is exactly what The Stranger does wrong. In that movie, we know the Stepfather is the killer from the opening scene on. But he remains a threat throughout, an unstable psychopath who will stop at nothing to protect his volatile secrets. The longer he goes uncaught, the more is at risk. People will die. Our heroes will suffer. This is urgent. The Stranger is rarely urgent, and its urgency is only created by the hero himself. And that’s just the wrong way to approach this story.

This is not to say The Stranger is a failure. The Oscar Nominated screenplay from Victor Trivas can be clever and fun. And the film was also the first to feature Concentration Camp footage, and is appropriately straightforward in its handling of post-war thematics. You can see why this would be well received in it’s time. But timeliness obviously can’t cover up weakness long term – The Stranger just doesn’t hold up over time.

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