The Stranger (USA, 1946)

the_strangerDirected by: Orson Welles. As per my obsessive/academic compulsion to see every film in a given filmmaker’s or actor’s filmography (depressingly, I’ve done more “research” on Liam Neeson than any other single person this year), I thought it would be nice to check this one out. It was totally off my radar, but it came up on MUBI, a really great (legal) streaming website, which I describe as Netflix for movie snobs. And, luckily for the OCD in me, it’s actually the next movie in order, right after Magnificent Ambersons. And, after the cheery sunshine (and studio hack-job) of that movie, this one feels great, right back to the down-and-dirty, proto-noir Welles that I know and love—stark shadows, moral drudgery, a protagonist with a shady psychology, and some very palpable and intense agony, of the kind that would be shocking even in a modern Hollywood drama, but is even more striking and effective situated in a (from my 21st century eyes) quaint, old-tymey Hollywood where they still speak with a “trans-Atlantic” accent. The acting was great, but it’s clearly Loretta Young who stands out, if only because the role requires it of her. Maybe that’s a cop-out way of begrudging a great actor of a great performance, because that role of the wife could easily have been forgettable. In Loretta Young’s hands, though, it’s a really compelling, multi-layered unraveling of a woman, and really the unraveling of a certain American way of life, the pre-war bliss of ignorance and the post-war horror of knowing. Don’t get me wrong—Welles is great, and god knows I love Edward G. Robinson—but without Young’s performance to push the whole thing over the top, this movie would have felt like a pretty quaint, juvenile, post-war, ho-hum, gee-whiz of a movie. As is, it fits nicely in the company of Graham Greene, Alfred Hitchcock, or Welles himself (go figure). But as per my previous post about The Lady Vanishes, there’s something about this movie that seems to not go far enough, that seems to be lacking the quality that makes Hitchcock or, in this case, Welles, so enjoyable in the first place. Namely, this is a there-and-back-again story, a story where basically all’s well that ends well. It’s pretty harrowing and dark—the woman’s American dream, and the whole town’s American dream, is shattered to a certain extent by the intrusion of this insidious shape-shifting Nazi. But ultimately it’s just that—an intrusion, and one which is exposed and neutralized in a relatively straightforward way, and the only real casualties are the hapless fellow Nazi at the beginning and the poor dog. You could definitely argue that the wife is a casualty; just like poor Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder, the man she married ended up being the devil, and we’re left wondering how she can ever trust again, how she can ever love again. In that film, the psychology of the wife is pretty well glossed over with good old-fashioned, patriarchal indifference, whereas in this one, the inner state of this woman (again, brought brilliantly to life by Loretta Young), is a pretty major part of the plot. Really, her transformation from a fucking doormat 50’s housewife, to a nervous wreck in utter denial, to a self-aware and confident woman pointing a pistol (and shooting at) her husband, is arguably the most important and interesting dramatic element of the movie, way more interesting than the supposedly central plot of Edward G. Robinson’s cop tracking down his Nazi fugitive. This movie seems to leave up for grabs how much devastation this whole episode has caused—to me it read as a pretty neat little there-and-back-again, but maybe the case could be made that this movie, like Welles, Hitch, and a lot of contemporary filmmakers of the day, points to a nominal happy ending, but which ultimately amounts to a kind of ideological closing of the barn door after the innocence and whole-ness has already run out. And on that metaphorical note, I’d better just leave it (and go chase that horse).

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