As is the case with the work of many a cinematic genius, the filmography of Orson Welles is especially revealing when considered as a whole. Hits, flops, stretches of obsession, gaps of inactivity, passion projects and moneygrabs — in some ways this kind of retrospective review can tell us more about the filmmaker than the films themselves. It’s the “God’s-eye view,” to steal the name of an aerial shot favored by Welles, and it serves to highlight the ideas that the writer/director would experiment with, return to, or transform entirely in successive efforts. The other edge of the sword, of course, is that each individual film inexorably loses something when viewed alongside a slew of cinema which may otherwise share little by way of plot, theme, style or cultural impact.
The best case-in-point: The Stranger, Welles’ 1946 Nazi-hunting thriller. It was either his third or fourth feature outing, depending on whether you account for one technicality. His first two were Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, utilizing a special technique called setting the bar high. But studio meddling with Ambersons soured Welles on Hollywood, and so his work on 1943’s Journey Into Fear is that aforementioned technicality. Tied up in a tussle over the final cut of Ambersons, Welles received no directing, producing or screenwriting credits in Journey, only appearing in a minor acting role as a Turkish inspector. In actuality Welles directed and wrote portions (at least) of Journey, and the theatrical poster seemingly has no issue declaring this as “ORSON WELLES’ Production…Starring ORSON WELLES.” Coincidentally or not, Journey Into Fear is a fairly feeble thriller that barely justifies a brief hourlong runtime.
The three-year gap that followed is also likely the result of Welles’ distaste for the studio system, and by several accounts The Stranger was essentially a director-for-hire project Welles undertook to prove that he could work within the confines of that very system. By that metric, Stranger is a success: it was on time and under budget. But Welles all but disowned the project in the ensuing years, reportedly considering it a juvenile effort when compared with his original epics and ambitious adaptations of Shakespeare.
Again, from the God’s-eye view, Welles’ self-assessment of The Stranger probably isn’t wrong. It’s no Kane or Ambersons, and later work like Touch of Evil and The Trial is likely more effective and more memorable. Welles’ motivation in making Stranger — moving back into the good graces of potential financiers for future projects — has a lot to do with that, and the plot can similarly be faulted. Postwar Nazi-hunting is a pretty surefire narrative, hence its popularity in everything from The Boys from Brazil to The Odessa File to that Magneto subplot in X-Men: First Class. Just last year we had Operation Finale, and Jordan Peele is currently setting up a Nazi-hunting series at Amazon starring Logan Lerman. Viewed today, The Stranger might feel overly familiar in causing these other films to leap to mind.
Still, though, if it’s a compelling synopsis today, imagine its potency when The Stranger came out only a year after the end of World War II. And while it’s not as earth-shattering as the rest of Welles’ filmography, it might actually be one of my favorite of his works. The simplicity of the affair makes for a lean and thrilling cat-and-mouse chase, with limited characters and meaningful locations to which those characters return frequently. Visually Stranger might be a bit on-the-nose for some, with the clocktower telegraphed as an obvious setting for the climactic tussle and the shadowy duplicity of Welles’ Kindler lit with all the subtlety of Two-Face himself:
But I’m enamored to the symbols and strong foreshadowing of Stranger in spite of its predictability. A particularly nice touch builds on a mid-movie quote from Emerson — “Commit a crime and the world is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole” — by having an unexpected bout of snow fall on the little town as Kindler is attempting to make his escape. Though he considered The Stranger his weakest effort, Welles’ directing would have made Hitchcock proud and manages to elevate what might have been a much more generic thriller.