The camera focuses in on what is a homemade time bomb. A young unidentified man carries it to a car placing it inside the trunk. Unknowingly, an American with his bimbo girlfriend gets into the car and drives off. The camera pulls back; we are in a sleazy Mexican border town. The camera follows the car. Coming in to the moving camera’s ranges is Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican police officer and his newlywed American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh). They cross the street heading toward the American side of the border. We pass one bar and strip joint after another, the music, jazz, rock and roll, blaring out from each one. At the border, Vargas stops and talks with the border guards, the two Americans in their car pass through, the girl mumbling something about hearing a ticking sound but no one pays her much attention. Moments later the car explodes into a fiery ball. With the strategic assistance of cinematographer Russell Metty, Welles frames this opening all in one astounding continuous long running brilliant shot. Continue reading
A slight detour to Radioland today being this is the 70th Anniversary of Orson Welles famed “War of the Worlds” broadcast on CBS Radio on October 30th 1938. For those not in the know Welles and the Mercury Theater broadcast a Halloween treat that many listeners assumed was the real thing and frightened people across the country. Listeners who tuned in at the beginning were aware that this was a radio show and not a real life news broadcast, however, many listeners tuned in after the start of the show and did not know what was happening.
Based on H.G, Wells novel, the setting was changed to Grover Mills, New Jersey which lent to its authenticity. The New York Daily New headline on the following day screamed “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.” The article began “A radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” - which thousands of people misunderstood as a news broadcast of a current catastrophe in New Jersey – created almost unbelievable scenes of terror in New York, New Jersey, the South and as far west as San Francisco between 8 and 9 o’clock last night. The panic started when an announcer suddenly interrupted the program of a dance orchestra - which was part of the dramatization – to “flash” an imaginary bulletin that a mysterious “meteor” had struck New Jersey, lighting the heavens for miles around.”
Most of the show was broadcast as a series of news bulletins which added to its authenticity. Adding to the tension for many was the real life fact that Hitler was on the move in Europe and the U.S. would soon be drawn into the war.
According to various newspaper’s local hospitals were crowded with people in shock, The telephone company was overloaded with panic phone calls and some people even attempted to kill themselves rather than be taken by aliens. Studies done later indicate that the wide spread “panic” of millions of people was blown out of proportion by the newspapers who were concerned that Radio, fairly new at the time, would kill the newspaper business. Yellow journalism was a common occurrence in those days. Over the years, the stories about the broadcast have grown and today it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. There definitely was panic however, as to how widespread the panic was, is in question.
In the aftermath, CBS, Welles, who was the director and narrator, and the Mercury Theater were not punished or fined, however, CBS promised not to ever use “we interrupt this program” for dramatic purposes again. Within less than three years, Orson Welles would go to Hollywood and direct his first film, the masterpiece “Citizen Kane.”
In 1957 CBS’s Studio One dramatized the event with an episode called “The Night America Trembled.” In 1975, A made of TV move called “The Night That Panicked America” was broadcast on ABC TV with a cast that included Vic Morrow, Meredith Baxter and John Ritter.
“The Stranger” is considered an odd duck in Welles directorial hierarchy. The film was seen as a test to see if Welles could work within the system, meaning could he stay within budget. Many film scholars have dismissed it as contract job, unlike his first two films and his later work, which all had Welles personal stamp all over them. The film even slipped into the public domain resulting in a lot of cheap poor reproduced DVD’s which has not helped enhance its reputation. Only recently did MGM release a high quality version for home video. While the movie does not have the flare or the visual stunningness of “Citizen Kane” or “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Stranger” has enough Wellesian, touches to distinguish it as a Welles film and even more important it is an entertaining film to watch.
Today, there is nothing original about the story we’ve seen it before, the man on the run who changes his identity living in a small town (Shadow of a Doubt). The former Nazi war criminal who fled, and is now living in another country (The Boys of Brazil, Apt Pupil), yet Welles style is evident. We see it in the long takes, the expressionistic lighting and unusual camera angles. While the story today is common, in 1946 it was not. “The Stranger” is also notable for its use, only a year after the end of World War 2, of actual concentration camp footage used to reveal the truth about Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) to his father in-law and wife.
Welles himself pretty much disowned “The Stranger”, seeing it only as a ‘gun for hire’ job. It is the only film he directed where someone else wrote the script (Victor Trivas), and where he did not have control over editing. He also had problems with producer Sam Spiegel. Originally, Welles wanted Agnes Moorhead in the role of Inspector Wilson however, Spiegel wanted a name with more star power and Edward G. Robinson was signed for the role. Welles and Robinson did not get along, during the filming. Spiegel would go on to produce epics like “The Bridge on the Rive Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”
The plot involves a convicted war criminal, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), who is released from prison in hope that he will lead officials to the more notorious Nazi, Franz Kindler. An investigator from the War Crimes Commission, Inspector Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is assigned to follow Meinike. As planned, Meinike leads Wilson to the small New England town of Harper, Connecticut where we find Kindler leading a new life as Charles Rankin, a professor at a nearby college. Rankin is about to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of the prominent citizen Judge Longstreet. From this point on, it becomes a cat and mouse game between Wilson and Kindler/Rankin. As Wilson gathers more and more evidence, he comes closer and closer to forcing Kindler to reveal to all his real identity.
Orson Welles, whose acting was more in demand than he directing, is always on edge as his character becomes more and more trapped in a vice like grip until the final exciting climax. The always good Edward G. Robinson seems to be doing a variation of his Barton Keyes character from Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Loretta Young is good as the naive wife who wants to believe her husband is innocent and not whom Wilson says he is. Also notable are a young Richard Long as Mary’s brother and Billy House who plays Mr. Potter, the checker playing General Store owner.
Ironically, “The Stranger” is one of Welles few films to do well at the box office and the film was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Due to its success, Welles was able to go on and make “The Lady from Shanghai” next. Admittedly, “The Stranger” is not in the class “Citizen Kane”, The Magnificent Ambersons” or “Touch of Evil”, it is a more standard thriller with some Wellesian touches thrown in however; it does not deserve to be more than just a footnote from Welles filmography and is certainly well worth seeing.