We’re still under the sway of Orson Welles. Take, for instance, the movie he starred in and directed in 1946. It’s called The Stranger, and Welles decided it was his least favorite of all the films he made. The critics and everyone else fell in line behind this pronouncement and the film fell into relative obscurity. (You can watch the film in its entirety online).
Welles made The Stranger to re-enter the good graces of Hollywood after fighting pitched battles over his previous film, 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons. The studio wanted a happier ending for that film and Welles wasn’t having it. The final, compromised result was a box office disaster. He made The Stranger to show he could play ball.
The movie was aimed at postwar U.S. audiences still shell-shocked from World War II. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a Nazi hiding under an assumed identity in a small Connecticut town. He’s described as one of the architects of the Third Reich’s plans for genocide. Biding his time as an American history professor and recently married to the respectable daughter of a Supreme Court justice, he is unrepentant and waiting for the inevitable Fourth Reich.
There’s a scene near the movie’s climax in which Welles’ character is in a phone booth at the local soda shop. He has realized that a special agent (played to lovely effect by Edward G. Robinson) has discovered his identity. Waiting for his call to go through, Welles starts doodling on a notepad in the booth. It’s not the focus of the shot, but we notice that he starts to draw a swastika. Realizing what he’s doing, Welles quickly turns the swastika into a box and then draws more lines, obscuring the shape altogether.
It is an absurd moment. It almost seems like a joke. Here we are at the height of tension, the world is closing in on our nefarious Nazi. He is trying to outmaneuver his pursuers. And there he is in the phone booth, sketching little swastikas.
Welles barely took his craft seriously much of the time. For many years during his long decline, he was known as a big fat loser who made cheesy wine commercials. He once said, “I started at the top and worked my way down.” He always seems to be working off-the-cuff. And yet, this is the same Orson Welles who created what is now commonly considered the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane.
I like The Stranger because it shows the Orson Welles who doesn’t really give a shit but can’t help creating brilliant moments anyway. The scene in the phone booth; the endless checker games with the proprietor of the soda shop; the crazy discussion about global politics over dinner at the judge’s house when Franz Kindler, trying to show he is not a Nazi, says things like:
Men of truth everywhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No! He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the fiery sword of Siegfried, and he knows subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in. The German’s unbroken dream world comes alive, and he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace. He’s… another Barbarossa… another Hitler.
Welles never bothers to weave any of these scenes together into a coherent whole. He’d already decided that the film was only worth so much effort.
You think of the artist as, at the very least, caring. You think of an artist capable of creating the greatest work of all time in his chosen field and you imagine the steady hand of a master. But you just don’t get that with Welles. He is the controlled genius who created Citizen Kane. He is also the ham actor overplaying every other role. He is the prankster convincing his audience that the Martians are coming. He is the fat clown doing anything for a few bucks. He’s the doodling Nazi who never has a chance against the steady investigations of Edward G. Robinson. Orson Welles still has sway over us for that very reason. We are still trying to figure him out, both the boy next door, and a complete stranger. • 26 January 2010