Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cuckoo Clocks

“It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
― Albert Camus

Orson Welles famously didn't much like The Stranger (1946). No reason why he should, really, given that it was a test to see if he could be a tractable commercial filmmaker. Welles had a reputation as a profligate genius whose movies didn't make money. "Showmanship in place of genius," RKO vowed after showing Welles to the door a few years earlier. The Stranger, made for the independent International Pictures and released by RKO was delivered on time and on budget and in spite of this, the producers still saw fit to meddle with it, removing 20-30 minutes of now-lost footage. It was Welles's only box office hit, too, which must have stuck in his craw. This is why it's always dangerous to take an artist's word for the worth of his work. The Stranger is one of Welles's most entertaining films. It's also one of his darkest.

The Stranger occupies that interesting twilight zone between the conclusion of World War II and the start of the Cold War when the villains of choice were ex-Nazis intent on infiltrating post-War society in order to continue their pursuit of a Thousand Year Reich (see also: Notorious). Five years later and this film's boogeyman would be a communist, but this film was made while the wounds of the war were still fresh and bleeding, so communism would have to wait its turn. The story here follows Mr. Wilson, an investigator for the War Crimes Commission, who is hunting for one Franz Kinder, one of the primary architects of the Final Solution. To this end, Wilson has released Konrad Meinike, one of Kinder's underlings, from a Czechoslovakian jail in order to use him as a stalking horse. Meinike leads Wilson to Harper, Connecticut, where Kinder has gone to ground as a history teacher for a prestigious boarding school. Now living under the name of Charles Rankin, Kinder is about to marry the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, cloaking himself in a mantle of respectability while he waits for the Reich to rise again. Meinike upsets this apple cart, and Rankin is obliged to murder him, setting off a chain of events that focuses Wilson's eye directly on him. His new wife, Mary, on the other hand, is snared along with him, torn between her horror of who Rankin really is (once she learns of it) and her devotion to the man she loves.

Welles has a trio of really good actors to work with in the lead, not least of whom is himself. Edward G. Robinson is a model of moral rectitude and implacable pursuit, kind of a variant of Robinson's character from Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. To my mind, Robinson is the Peter Cushing of classic Hollywood, capable of profoundly depraved villainy and absolute nobility of character. Loretta Young is a more conventional movie star, and her wholesome screen image served the film well as she gets caught up in the guilt of her husband. Welles was always good at making the most of what Hollywood gave him (which often wasn't much).

Of all of Welles's movies, this is the one that most closely follows the patterns of film noir. The past catching up with the present is a dominant theme, as is the downward spiral once crimes are brought to light. This has a positively Hitchcockian sense of evil coming to mundane places and hiding behind respectable facades (appropriate, given the subject matter; this is an early cinematic manifestation of Hannah Arendt's "appalling banality of evil"). And, my heavens, does this lay on the guilt trip. This has a dual narrative and two saps caught in the downdraft. Rankin bears the mark of Cain, and the movie builds a clockwork to facilitate his downfall. He's increasingly desperate as the walls close in. Mary, on the other hand, has appropriated the guilt of her husband and it pushes her closer and closer to the edge. Welles's visual style has always been one of the driving influences of film noir, and this movie shows that more than most. Even in bright, sunny scenes (of which there are plenty), Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, works the shadows like a master. The night scenes are all studies in chiaroscuro. The philosophy of The Stranger is likewise a study in harsh contrasts. The film's vision of Harper, Connecticut is worthy of Frank Capra, and its American idyll is thrown into stark contrast by Wilson's film of the concentration camps of Europe. This is the first American film to show that footage, and it must have come as a huge shock to the audience of the day. This is one of the first film's noir that makes its theme of existential annihilation explicit and literal on the screen.

As with other films noir, time and clocks are a dominant motif in The Stranger. This film could have been titled "The Big Clock," though another film noir took that title a couple of years later. The entire time I was watching The Stranger, I couldn't help but think of Harry Lime's defense of his villainy in The Third Man: " Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." This seems particularly apropos to this film, given that Charles Rankin is a cuckoo of sorts, and the climax of the film, in which he winds up on the track of a clockwork, could be viewed as an elaborate visual pun if you accept that reading. Charles Rankin/Franz Kinder seems very much to be a predecessor of Harry Lime. Welles poured his own thoughts on Germans and German reconstruction into Charles Rankin; his dinner party speech about how the only way to make peace with the German is to annihilate him closely parallels an editorial Welles wrote for The New York Times calling for a kind of Carthaginian peace. It's interesting that Welles puts this in the mouth of a villain when he himself believed it. Fortunately, The Marshall Plan was not so draconian.

1 comment:

crow said...

You know, anytime I watch "The Stranger", I seem to think about Hitchcock's "The Saboteur". I think it's the theme about how *they* are able to integrate into society, and the knowledge that it has been a successful masquerade. I guess the scary thought that *they* can put on a disguise and seem like any of us says something about us. I think "The Stranger" is a good film. I like it a lot, but I guess Welles felt that it was too *Hollywood* (or maybe *Mainstream* is a more apt description) for his tastes. Whatever the case your review states effectively why the movie deserves to be seen. You really caught me off-guard by the comment about Robinson/Cushing and it is so true! I never thought of that, but Robinson could ably play either role, villain or hero.