The Stranger ★★★★½

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 12: Orson Welles

Ah, genius youth -- is there any greater curse? After a charmed early career in which he could literally do no wrong, first in live theater (where among other accolades he produced the first-ever all-black Shakespeare production on Broadway), and then radio (where his infamously realistic modern updating of War of the Worlds caused a national panic), the 24-year-old Welles then hit Hollywood like a tornado with his very first film, Citizen Kane, still rightly considered by many to be the very best movie ever made in human history. But that's when Welles learned that when you finally start having success in the "big leagues" ("big leagues" = "any situation where billions of dollars are exchanging hands"), the corrupt dimwitted pencil-pushers who stand to gain from these billions of dollars don't take kindly at all to boy geniuses who threaten to disrupt their industry; and thus is it that the most powerful media tycoon in human history, William Randolph Hearst, instituted a literal twenty-year smear campaign against Welles for the crime of making the script of Citizen Kane a thinly-veiled biography of Hearst as a thumb-sucking Freudian man-child, affecting pretty much every studio contract Welles ever tried to negotiate afterwards; and thus did the executives of RKO take every opportunity they could to discredit and ruin Welles' second movie, 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons, expressly so they could fire him before the concept of "genius auteurs with no studio supervision" could become a trend, even going to the unprecedented (and cartoonish) extreme of changing their entire corporate motto after his firing to "RKO: Showmanship In Place of Genius," which I assure you is a very real thing they actually did and not a snotty joke on my part.

So make no mistake; after four wartime years of a return back to radio and the live theater, when Welles in 1946 accepted a contract job to direct the generic film noir The Stranger, it was the equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan accepting a no-credit director job for 2010's generic anime vehicle The Last Airbender -- an act of public contrition after an early career of maverick hits produced an arrogance that bit them both in the ass, basically the directors coming to their audiences with hat in hand and saying, "Look, I'm sorry, okay? Hey, I can make crowd-pleasing genre flicks too! No, seriously, I don't even need my name above the title anymore! I've learned my lesson, okay? Please, God, just give me another chance, people, won't you please just give me another chance?" Because let's be clear, although The Stranger is an excellent noir just on its own terms (originally meant for the more humble but just as brilliant genre veteran John Huston but who had to turn it down because of leftover wartime commitments), it displays almost none of the innovative auteur touches that Welles brought to his first two films, a studio job for studio pay and studio treatment which forced Welles to sign over an unprecedented amount of control before International Pictures would even consider hiring him (he had to promise to return his entire director's fee if the picture came in a day over schedule or a dollar over budget, and was also forced to give editor Ernest Nims the power to cut any scene he thought too extravagant), all for the promise of an eventual four-picture contract that they then reneged on after the film was released.

All that said, though, this is a great noir for people who like noirs, which by fortuitous coincidence I watched right after Film Noir week here at the Film School Dropout challenge, a beautifully stylish thriller that just also happens to have the historical distinction of being the first feature film in history to include footage from the Nazi concentration camps. It stars Welles himself in the dubious role of a former Nazi who's now masquerading as a WASPy teacher with perfect English at a tony private high school in small-town Connecticut of all places; Edward G. Robinson, in fine form here, plays the anti-Nazi investigator who has tracked him halfway across the planet and is just on the verge of finally catching up with him. It's got all the touches you would want from a classic noir -- the murky moral gray zones, the Expressionist-influenced shadows, the tough-as-nails dialogue -- made all the more remarkable here for taking place in a sunny, sleepy small New England town, filmed with great verisimilitude at Universal's famed "Courthouse Square" backlot where Back to the Future was also produced. (In fact, in what may or may not be a coincidence, both movies feature a broken clock in the square's courthouse as a major plot point.) In a way it's a real shame that Welles always considered this the worst film of his career, because of it being the most workmanlike; because Welles turned out to be a fine workman, and could've had a very different late career indeed if he had been able to better embrace the "Stephen Soderbergh method" of doing things (that is, every odd-numbered film a crowdpleasing genre exercise for the studios; every even-numbered film an experimental headscratcher just for him).

Coming next, 1947's The Lady from Shanghai, yet another troubled production (over budget, over schedule, in which he directed his ex-wife Rita Hayworth after their bitter divorce, butchered by the studio afterwards, a box-office disaster) which helped seal the fate of Welles as an artist who peaked tragically early.

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