Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What I Watched Last Night: THE STRANGER starring Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles and Loretta Young


I've seen this movie, directed by Orson Welles, a couple of times over the years and of course the only thing I ever remember was the ghoulish over-the-top ending. But when I saw it again thinking I'd talk about it on the Overlooked Movies meme held every Tuesday I finally realized what a superb botch of a movie it really is.

Here's what I figure: The editing must have been done by committee at the studio. Perhaps Welles wanted to do it and wasn't allowed to? (Wouldn't be the first time.) I don't know the behind the scenes story so I wish someone would let me know what the heck happened to this film.


It starts out to be a great story about the hunting down and destroying of a Nazi war criminal who has escaped Germany at the end of WWII. I mean, what could be better? Though the fact that the screenplay has several writers listed and John Huston and Orson Welles unlisted should have been a tip off to what went wrong. But I didn't know that until recently.

First a few words about the casting.


Loretta Young as Mary Longstreet, a naive, newly married housewife (a part usually tailor made for her) is so out of her depth here that she appears even more goggle-eyed and brittle than usual. She always did have a kind of owly look going on, but it worked for her in lighter films and soap opera. Up against a fiend of a Nazi killer, not so much. She looks simple and gullible and very foolish. Of course, that's the way the part is written so maybe it's not all her fault.


The movie is kind of an odd combination of soap opera and noir thriller. So who knows if any actress could have done any better with the thankless part. And no, the fact that she gets her revenge in the end doesn't make what came before any more palatable.

Edward G. Robinson can do very little wrong as far as I'm concerned. Here he plays Mr. Wilson, a determined Nazi hunter sent from the War Crimes Commission in - I suppose - Nuremberg, Germany, to ferret out and if not capture, kill an infamous Nazi. Wilson's wily single-minded devotion to his mission is commendable, he is the one good thing in the film. Though I question some of his tactics - involving Mary Longstreet's family members in a very dangerous game, for instance - but I suppose any port in a storm is the modus operandi for Nazi hunters. And by the way, why is he sent all alone to track down this most dangerous of escaped villains? An assistant or two would have come in handy. Maybe a bodyguard? But still Robinson makes what he can of the strong-willed, pipe smoking nemesis.

Orson Welles  looks good as the clock fancying new husband, crazed killer and Nazi villain combo. I mean, he practically seethes in every scene. Smoke comes out of his ears. Well, not really, but use your imagination. He is a cauldron of repressed Nazi villainy. He has one great speech at the dinner table in which he talks about the German soul and character, but other than that it's all skulking about, scowling and looking dangerous.(Why he has no German accent is never explained.)

The dinner scene takes place after his marriage to Mary which occurred shortly after Welles (as the newly minted Charles Rankin) has strangled (with his bare hands) a character from his past who has shown up in the sleepy Connecticut town where Rankin has established himself as a gregarious college professor. The victim is a man who had been allowed to escape from prison by the War Crimes Commission in hopes he would lead them to bigger Nazi fish.


The gist of the story:

Mr. Wilson is after a Nazi kingpin and master planner who has, apparently, escaped into 1946 New England. The trail has led Wilson to a small idyllic college town in the Connecticut countryside. (What are the odds?) Here is where the rest of the story will be played out in dramatic fashion.


At the center of town, in the square, is a church with an appropriately fancy antique clock in the tower, a clock whose works need fixing. And who else better to tinker with the works than the evil Nazi? Uh, I mean, Professor Charles Rankin, whose hobby is tinkering with clocks. Unfortunately for him, this is also the well-known hobby of the man being hunted by Wilson.

So it's apparent, really, from the first that the story will be a mano-a-mano duel between good and evil. It's nicely set up that way. The innocent looking, sleepy little town bedecked in white clapboard and peopled with checker playing denizens. Nice touches. There's a good scene in a dark school gymnasium and some interesting byplay as Mr. Wilson scopes out the lay of the land.


Pretty soon he's narrowed down the chase to Professor Rankin and soon after that, he's wormed his way into the family of Mary Longstreet as a guest of her father, a judge and antiques enthusiast. Soon after that Wilson is enlisting Mary Longstreet's younger brother (played by a sincere but very callow looking Richard Long) in his plans. I think we're meant to know that Wilson is good at sizing people up and taking advantage of what's available.


Well, we've seen Rankin strangle a man with his bare hands early on but it's not until he kills the family dog that we are truly made aware of his disgusting villainy - this man will stop at nothing! Before you can say 'now, what', he begins plotting to kill his gullible wife  - he has strung her along with the most absurd of sob stories about his past. She, of course, chooses to believe he is simply misunderstood. Even when Rankin tells her he's recently strangled a man, she decides to run away with him anyway. (She doesn't know, at this point, that he's a Nazi - just a common, garden-variety murderer. But, c'mon, woman, use your intelligence.) I guess she figures what would a Nazi be doing in Connecticut?


Eventually Mary is forced to realize the true nature of the monster she's married and she does get a measure of revenge. It all occurs in the high reaches of the clock tower where everyone has gone (including the townspeople) to watch the end of the story.

Rankin gets an appropriately ghoulish and bizarre death which is meant, I suppose, to make us feel the satisfaction of good finally triumphing over evil. But can any death really be good enough for a man so foul? Here's the problem: the ending is a botch. Badly edited and not especially well shot, much of the intended shock and awe turns to bemusement. It feels like a grand operatic death without the accompanying music. Well, except for the noise of the clock malfunctioning in the steeple. (There should have been at least an aria or two.)


Then, Edward G. Robinson's character makes a flippant remark to Loretta Young's character as he lights his pipe, and the screen goes black. I mean, huh?

I waited for more, but that was it. Obviously somebody none too handy with a scissor had done some heavy-handed slicing and dicing. What else are we to think?

In fact, most of the film is edited in a choppy manner with one scene not necessarily leading to another and occasionally odd camera angles interfering with the action. This is especially apparent in the second half of the film.

The thing that is most bothersome about it all is that it's obvious (despite Loretta Young) this could have been a memorable thriller. A new kind of movie genre: the noir soap opera.

Despite it all, I still say see the movie and make your own judgement. There are elements of it that are affecting and suspenseful. The first half of the film is well enough done. And Orson Welles was always a fascinating screen presence - even with smoke coming out of his ears. Then, of course, there's Edward G. Robinson. Though he's wonderful in just about anything, even he has a hard time saving this one.

But there are some bad films you just have to see for yourself. This is one of them.


29 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. But didn´t you know a woman´s foremost duty is to stand by her man?

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  3. Good analysis of an interesting movie. I've always like Robinson, but especially when he's the dogged investigator. As you say, Welles is very good in this role. I'm ambivalent about Loretta Young. I don't think there's much else to do with this role, as written. Maybe we need more back story on her and her brother. I don't know. It's been a while since I've seen it, but I'm going to tackle it sometime.

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  4. Hello Yvette:
    It is years since we saw this film which this excellent review serves to bring back to mind. Anything, we feel, in which Edward G. Robinson plays a part is worthy of being watched and The Stranger is certainly no exception.

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  5. Yvette, I only read the first paragraph of your review, got the gist of how you felt about the movie, and then stopped. I had just put this movie in my queue for Netflix, and I want to watch it before I find out what happens. I'll be interested to see how it strikes me, then come back and compare with the rest of your assessment...should be fun!

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  6. Oh Becky, can't wait to see what you think of it!

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  7. Dorte: For sure. Ha! But she gets her own in the end.

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  8. Jacqueline: Yeah, she's the weakest link. But it's the editing that ruins the second half for me. I'd love to read one of your detailed analysis.

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  9. Jane and Lance: I'm a fan of Edward G. as well. He's the best thing in this film far as I'm concerned.

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  10. Hi, Yvette - With that review, you may well turn this into a cult classic!

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  11. Anything's possible, Mark. :)

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  12. Yvette, I am in the middle of this movie, and it is just TERRIBLE. I am actually so bored with it that I came back to your post just to see what happens so I don't have to finish it. LOL! Of course the clock tower is the final scene - we knew that the minute we saw it, didn't we? How could a movie with Orson Welles and Edward G. be so bad? Edward G. is doing a fine acting job, but Orson! He just oozes guilt. I keep expecting him to respond to every question with "Yes, I like clocks, BUT I'M NOT A NAZI!"

    Loretta Young has never been a favorite of mine, and she really has a simpleton part in this movie. Editing - oh yes, bad! Music? In the beginning credits, it is so lush and romantic - I even heard a little steal from "Laura" in a few strains. Doesn't fit this at all!

    The weirdest, funniest line in the whole thing (so far) came from, of all people, callow Richard Long as Mary's brother. They are all sitting at the dinner table after the honeymoon, Mary says something about doing pretty well skiing, and her young brother says to her: "Did you manage to keep your knees together and your apparatus in?" To me, this is an absolutely hilariously inintentional comedic line, to say to your sisters after her honeymoon!!!!

    Yvette, I am in total agreement, and I am now cutting off "The Stranger", as I am not interested in getting further acquainted. LOL!

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  13. Oh Becky, you should definitely fastforward and take a gander at the death by clock scene. I can say no more. It kind of reminds of the Sid Caesar skit, THE CLOCK.
    Those of you familiar with it will know what I mean. (I should have put that in the review. Ha!)

    So you noticed the editing, huh.

    "Yes, I like clocks, BUT I'M NOT A NAZI!" HA!! Too funny. Actually Loretta Young defends him when Robinson mentions the hobby, she says something like, "Lots of people like clocks."

    Right.

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  14. Becky, did you see my review of the Gene Kelly/Judy Garland movie?
    THE PIRATE. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. Not my post, the movie! :) One of my very favorite musicals.

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  15. Yvette, great minds think alike! I am fast-forwarding to see that. somehow I missed your Pirate post. I LOVE that movie! I'm kind of flagging in energy now, but I will read it tomorrow. For now, it is most important that I see the death scene before I fall asleep! LOL!

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  16. Becky: Rest easy, tomorrow is another day. Take care, kiddo. G'night!

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  17. Yvette -- OH...MY...GOD...that death scene. I couldn't help but laugh! Talk about the writer trying to beat us over the head with symbolism! And the ending! You are so right - really weird, and probably edited by some technician's 3-year old toddler.

    Well, with that, I'm off to bed to dream of better movies!

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  18. Hi Yvette, well, you are right that this is a case of a movie that should have been better - according to research by Brett Woods, Welles had originally hoped to get Agnes Moorhead to play the Nazi hunter, which is not to take anything away from excellent Robinson's portrayal but it would have made for a startlingly different dynamic.

    Apparently about 20 minutes were cut from the original version shot and planned by Welles by Ernest Nimms, who would later do the same thing to TOUCH OF EVIL with which this film has quite a lot in common it seems to me. Originally here was a much more extended prologue set south of the border and there was also meant to be a long dream sequence in which Young would have confronted her darkest fears about her husband and would have fed more directly into the nightmarish quality of the clocktower finale.

    It is fascinating to compare it with Hitckcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT, especially when you realise that, weirdly, we are meant to feel some empathy with Welles' character in a way that we never do for 'Uncle Charlie'.

    A film well-worth rediscovering - thanks!

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  19. Becky: Don't you love when he yanks his body away from the sword wielding automaton? Talk about strength of will. Teutonic to the end. :)

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  20. Sergio: Wow. I am imagining Agnes Moorehead in the mix. Remember the mother in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE? I wonder if Moorhead would have brought that kind of vileness to the role of Wilson. Fun to think about.

    Were those extra 20 minutes shot? Or were they just planned in the script?

    Interesting that you mention SHADOW OF A DOUBT, the only other film (that I can think of at the moment) which would 'fit' my 'noir soap opera' definition. No, we never, even for a moment sympathize with Uncle Charlie.

    Although both men, I think, are insane (with different manias).

    Of course Rankin claims - as most 'good' Nazis did - that he "was only foillowing orders."

    Yup.

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  21. Sergio: Just realized I got Wilson mixed up with Rankin in my comment on Agnes Moorehead. Forget I mentioned the mother in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

    Moorehead would have been wonderful as Wilson and would have brought her own steely-eyed intensity to the role of nemesis.

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  22. Hi Yvette,

    apparently the footage was shot and then edited out - Bret Woods wrote an article in 1994 for Video Watchdog, "Recognizing THE STRANGER" which had the script extracts which sounded absolutely great (always the case with stuff you can't get of course ...). Welles's director's cut (sic) was originally 115 minutes long and would have begun with a pre-credit sequence made up of elements from the climax of the film with people asking who it was who fell from the clocktower - cue the title ... THE STRANGER - then a huge chunk was cut from the Latin American sequence with Meinike being shadowed as he looks for Kindler and gets a false passport and his eventual flight to the US and his finding of Welles. Towards the end when she send Noah to meet Rankin, realising that he might be killed she faints and had the strange dream we saw partly in the pre-credit sequence.

    Sounds tantalising, doesn't it? - it would have had a lot more subtext and much more of a nightmarish quality, clearly.

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  23. I've never been a big fan of Orson Welles on screen. I love him on the readio, but I can never get interested in him visually.

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  24. Sergio: It certainly would have added depth to the story. Thanks for finding out and letting me know. These little tidbits add so much to our enjoyment (or not) of vintage movies. :)

    So the beginning takes place in a Latin American country? I'd thought someplace in Germany. Wasn't really sure.

    With all its faults this is still an interesting movie. Any time you attach Orson Welles to a scenario, there's going to be something going on worth talking about.

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  25. Ryan: Then you won't mind missing this one. :)

    He did have a glorious speaking voice. Very recognizable too.

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  26. A new husband, crazed killer and Nazi villain -- a three-in-one combo? What more could one imagine with Orson Welles in the movie -- and, of course, in Connecticut, famous hide-out for Nazi war criminals!

    Your review is hilarious, as always. I always know I can come here and be assured that I'll be laughing out loud, especially with a movie review.

    I felt like I was reading Rex Stout reviewing The Stranger.

    I remember from years ago that this movie was strange, that the ending was abrupt and not complete.

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  27. Kathy: Glad you enjoyed reading my review. All this praise is going to my head. Ha!

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  28. It should! You deserve it!

    And we women of a certain age -- whatever that is -- have to have solidarity.

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  29. Thanks, Kathy. Much appreciated. :)

    Here's to solidarity!!

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