The Orson Welles movie Orson Welles didn’t like

I was very pleasantly surprised last night when I watched The Stranger, a movie I hadn’t seen before and knew little about, and found it wonderful. Apparently the director didn’t feel the same way, however, or so I’ve read.

The Stranger (1946)

Orson Welles’, The Stranger is an enthralling noir that has received some pretty shabby treatment over the years, not the least of which is by Welles himself. (Of his movies, it is the one he liked least.)

For most, it seems the movie’s biggest detraction is that it is not Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons.

For Welles, it seems the movie’s largest problem is that it is his most commercial, the movie he was forced to make to prove he could make a successful movie.

In other words, it tends to be evaluated in a debilitating context. For me, this is a great, if lesser Welles film, one I loved, and perhaps the reason I like it is that is commercial. It is constrained as far as what he could do (as if someone said, “Forget art; make something that sells!”). Maybe it works as well as it does because Welles can’t overly indulge himself.

I don’t know; I can only guess. But I do know it works better than most noirs; better than most movies, period.

Made not long after the end of World War II, The Stranger uses a scenario that is similar to Shadow of a Doubt (1943). It is about evil living – hiding, actually – in the heart of America.

Edward G. Robinson is Wilson, a man hunting down former Nazis and bringing them to justice. Orson Welles is Professor Charles Rankin – the Nazi Franz Kindler, disguised and hiding in small town Connecticut. Loretta Young is Mary, the young woman Rankin is about to marry, someone like everyone else in the town, completely unaware of her fiancé’s past.

Of course, being an Orson Welles movie it isn’t enough that Kindler be a Nazi. He’s portrayed as the Nazi, after Hitler. He wasn’t just part of running a concentration camp; he conceived and designed them.

In order to find Kindler, a man no one can identify visually, Robinson’s Wilson arranges for another Nazi to escape prison – Meinike, a former commandant of a concentration camp – in the hope that he will lead Wilson to Kindler.

I think what most struck me about The Stranger was the degree to which the constraints placed upon Welles appear to help the movie.

It has all the expected Welles’ elements from the off-kilter camera angles, the shadows, and elongated perspectives – even imagery with meaning (such as the clock). Yet it is such a taut movie. It doesn’t flag for a moment.

It may be that the noir style helped Welles as far as achieving coherence. Or perhaps it was the imposition of those constraints and the need to show he could make something that would sell. (Theatrically, The Stranger was Welles’ most successful movie.)

Whatever the reasons, this may be Welles’ best movie from a purely entertainment perspective.

20 Movies: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

A list of movies that didn’t include Alfred Hitchcock wouldn’t be much of a list. One of my favourites, and one I think it’s time I watched again, is Shadow of a Doubt, with a very creepy Uncle Charlie played by Joseph Cotten.

As mentioned in the review below, in many ways Hitch is the dark twin of Frank Capra. What the angel Clarence was to Bedford Falls, Uncle Charlie is to Santa Rosa. Only inside out.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It’s claimed by many that Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite of all the films he had made; some say he considered it his best. The claim rings true if you’re even modestly familiar with his films, his preoccupations and his humour. You can understand how the story would delight him.

Shadow of a Doubt presents us with an almost quintessential American town of the 1940’s. It’s almost Capra-esque. In a way, Shadow of a Doubt is George Bailey’s Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life except where Capra brings an angel to it, Hitchcock brings the devil.

His name is Uncle Charlie and he’s played by Joseph Cotten with delicious charm that alternates with brooding self-obsession.

Into the charmed and innocent life of California’s little Santa Rosa, into the home of the all-American family of the Newtons, comes Mom’s little brother, Uncle Charlie, for a visit of no determined length. He’s welcomed with cheerful enthusiasm by his sister Emma (Patricia Collinge), and by his namesake niece Young Charlie (Teresa Wright).

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).Unfortunately, no one is aware that Uncle Charlie, pleasant as he seems, is a psychopathic killer, a man who behind his charm hates the world and everyone in it.

Uncle Charlie’s secret view of the world is important as it’s in direct contrast with the Newton view, especially Young Charlie’s. Cotton’s character represents corruption; Wright’s represents innocence. The film can broadly be seen as a loss of innocence.

As the film opens, we meet Uncle Charlie and immediately become aware that he has a dark secret. Two men are after him, though we’re not sure who they are (I think we assume it’s the police though we’re not told this right away). Charlie is on the run but we don’t know why.

He escapes and goes to his sister’s family in Santa Rosa. When he arrives by train Hitchcock visually telegraphs what is about to happen. It’s a bright, sunny day and the family run down the platform to meet the train. The youngest child of the Newton’s is isolated for a moment on the platform, in the sun. As the train pulls up it’s dark shadow moves along the platform engulfing the child.

Scene from Shadow of a Doubt (1943).We then seen an apparently weak and ill Charlie get off the train. He’s bent over and almost hobbles. But as he sees the Newtons his face changes, he puts on a facade of charm, straightens up and in an instant is the picture of happy health.

Alone, Charlie is quiet and brooding. Amongst others, he’s vibrant and witty. Only every now and then does he reveal himself publicly. When he does, he quickly covers for his mistake.

Within the family, Teresa Wright’s Young Charlie is easily the brightest, most perceptive member. Although she hero-worships Uncle Charlie, she quickly sees there is something about him that isn’t right. But because she loves her uncle the way she does, she won’t admit to herself the truth about her uncle.

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).The law catches up with Uncle Charlie, however, and soon Young Charlie is enlisted by the police to help them catch him. Uncle Charlie then discovers his niece knows his secret, or at least that she’s aware he has one, and has to deal with this threat to himself.

The contest soon becomes one between Uncle Charlie and his niece and the suspense builds to its crescendo – all very Alfred Hitchcock like.

It’s a perfect Hitchcock film. It’s easily one of the best and an argument could be made for it being the best. Shadow of a Doubt is not sensational in the way of movies like Psycho or The Birds. It’s subtler and quieter and in some ways more menacing because of this.

Scene from Shadow of a Doubt (1943).It evokes idyllic America then slowly peals back its layers to reveal a darkness beneath. (This is wonderfully illustrated when the two Charlie’s step off the Norman Rockwell main street into the smokey bar and meet the bored, defeated waitress – a kind of dark opposite of Young Charlie.)

The DVD of Shadow of a Doubt is pretty good but certainly not flawless. There is some scratching and a few awkward jumps, though nothing alarming. The image, however, is pretty solid and the sound is good for a film of this period. The disc also has Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film, an informative feature that includes the thoughts of Teresa Wright, Hume Cronyn and Peter Bogdanovich among others.