WEIRDLAND: Orson Welles' "The Stranger", Evolution of Noir

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Orson Welles' "The Stranger", Evolution of Noir

The Stranger (1946) is in some ways the most fascinating film of Orson Welles' career, and, yes, that is saying a lot. The film was one of the few out and out successes in Welles' famously turbulent directorial vocation, and it's not hard to see why. This is a film which bristles with implied menace in the same sort of way that Hitchcock's tonally similar Shadow of a Doubt does. What's so amazing about the film for those of us who like to analyze or indeed over-analyze things is how seamlessly Welles manages to keep pushing the directorial envelope even as he sacrifices nothing in the way of story momentum or apt characterizations.

This is a film as innovative in its own way as Citizen Kane was in terms of camera setups and framings. Over and over again Welles shoots around and literally through items that are in the foreground of the frame, as if daring the audience to look beyond the surface to the unseemly underbelly of what's going on. There's almost always something "unimportant" happening up front in setup after setup in this film, which in turn literally forces the viewer to look more deeply. Just as bracing is the brilliantly literate script by a number of co-writers (including an uncredited John Huston and Welles himself).

Though the film unfolds as a sort of mystery thriller, there's a surprisingly nuanced look at Nazi atrocities (including the first ever feature film inclusion of concentration camp newsreel footage) and the very beginnings of a sort of international complacency that was perhaps an overreaction to the decade of horror which had just passed. The dinner table scene in The Stranger is really a marvel of political debate, as Germany's reaction to its own post-War place in the world is examined within the confines of polite conversation.

If Loretta Young's Mary is perhaps too naïve to ever be a fully believable character, the actress herself is so completely luminous in this film that she overcomes any passing qualms. But the film is really all about the cat and mouse game between Welles and Robinson, and neither has been finer. Welles is able to be both perfectly suave and completely menacing, often simultaneously, and his slow descent into (perhaps further) madness is riveting. Robinson is stalwart and steady, in a way quite similar to the Spencer Tracy character coming up against a different kind of evil in Bad Day at Black Rock. Robinson, like Tracy, is the unassuming all American here, nobody's fool but not exactly the strapping hero type, either. This is a battle of wits much more than brawn.

If the film finally gives into a bit of Grand Guignol posturing at its climax, Welles is probably not to blame. As so often happened in his career, the film was taken from his control and cut to its producer's satisfaction. (The producer, by the way, is iconic Sam Spiegel working under the name of S.P. Eagle). But as with so many Welles films wrested from his control—The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil—even the fussy hands of those who thought they knew better couldn't completely quash the genius of the man in the director's chair. Very few films have managed to so brilliantly meld a political thriller into such a noir format. Source:

22nd MAY 8:00 PM - THE STRANGER (1946): A small-town schoolteacher suspects her new husband may be an escaped Nazi war criminal. Director: Orson Welles. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles. BW-95 mins Source:

When neo-noir flourished in the 1970s, the movement emerged--fully formed as a genre--from its black-and-white cocoon. According to filmmaker Paul Schrader, noir began with The Maltese Falcon and ended with Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He'd add that it was largely an American movement that applied certain stylistic (high contrast lighting, voice over narration, non-linear storytelling) and thematic (existentialism, the cruel mechanizations of fate, amour fou) elements in genres ranging from melodramas to detective films. Another film scholar might add that directors like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder never described their films as being "noir." They thought they were making thrillers. Film noir? That's a term the French critics applied retroactively. This video essay series takes the fairly provocative stance that film noir became a genre.

Essentially, in its golden age during the 1940s, noir was a mode/movement that was superimposed onto other genres. In the words of genre theorist Rick Altman, genres can start off as "adjectives"--fragments of the style and theme might be there, but the genre has yet to fully solidify because the filmmakers and audiences haven't quite gotten their heads around it yet. However, by the time Robert Aldrich was making Kiss Me Deadly in 1955, the writings of the French critics had made it stateside (in fact, there's a picture of him reading Borde and Chaumeton's Panorama du Film Noir on the set of Attack!), and perhaps the filmmakers and audiences had finally begun to think of noir as being a noun.

A list of the films featured in this installment: M, La Bete Humaine, This Gun For Hire, The Big Sleep, Out Of The Past, The Killers, The Lady From Shanghai, In A Lonely Place, Sunset Blvd.,
Ace In The Hole, Bob Le Flambeur, Breathless, Shoot The Piano Player, Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pulp Fiction, Sin City, Drive. Source:


Marcos Callau said...

Great post Elena. Wonderful picture and really an evolution. In fact, Welles always means evolution, I think. Cheers!

Elena W said...

I'm glad you liked my post, Marcos. Orson Welles definitely changed the course of film history, "Citizen Kane" for me is a prototypical noir (one of the best ever) although it's labeled as drama. Cheers!!