The Stranger

Mr Wilson with Mary

The Stranger is an entertaining enough noirish thriller but the real fun comes from watching it as a contest between a maverick director and a studio that wanted their hireling to turn out Hollywood product rather than a grand auteurish statement.

The director is Orson Welles and the year is 1946. Welles was at a low ebb. He hadn’t been let near a feature film on his own for four years. 1941’s Citizen Kane had flopped and the follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, had gone so far over schedule and over budget that the studio had taken it off Welles, cut an hour and reshot whole chunks of it. It also bombed.

Future generations might think of Welles as a genius, but Hollywood at the time treated him as a bumptious pest. So here he is, chastened and behaving himself, being kept on a tight leash by producer Sam Spiegel as he knocks out a regular-folks movie, having signed a contract that gave Spiegel the last word in the event of any artistic differences of opinion. Spiegel also installed Ernest Nims as editor, whose job was to remove Welles’s signature flourishes.

Welles countered by shooting as much of the film as possible in continuous, uneditable long takes. Nims, undeterred, still hacked away, and you can see the results of it in the opening sequence, where a husband and wife are introduced. It looks like they’re going to be a substantial part of the film. They arrive. They speak. They disappear, bizarrely never to be seen again, the result of Nims having removed what was 16 pages of screenplay from the beginning of the film.

The woman, incidentally, ended up being killed by wild dogs in the original treatment, which might not seem to have much relevance to what follows, but it set a tone, and in The Stranger mood was meant to be everything. As Welles observed, Nims “believed that nothing should be in a movie that did not advance the story. And since most of the good stuff in my movies doesn’t advance the story at all, you can imagine what a nemesis he was to me.”

Welles’s 16 pages of (deleted) mood-setting out of the way, he opens his story proper with an establishing shot of the door of a US war crimes agency taken from a very low vantage point, and then follows up with another establishing shot, this time from very high up, of the story’s hero, Edward G Robinson’s investigator Mr Wilson, a mild-mannered penpushing kind of Mr Average, the sort of gradualist implacable nemesis Robinson had perfected in 1944’s Double Indemnity. It could almost be the same person.

Off the story hurtles. Wilson’s plan is to release a known Nazi and follow him as he flees across America. He does so and the trail leads to a picket-fence small town – perfect in its cuteness – where it’s soon established that Professor Charles Rankin (Welles) is a particularly nasty Nazi in hiding, and one about to embed himself even further in US society by marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a liberal judge and a pillar of society.

The rest of the film, again in a manner reminiscent of Double Indemnity, consists of the patient Mr Wilson flushing out Rankin, who Wilson suspects almost from the off.

The long takes make it an elegant journey, and the cinematography of Russell Metty means it’s a good looking one. Metty had worked (though not as DP) on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and would later be Welles’s DP on Welle’s Touch of Evil. He’s no slouch here – high key lighting for exteriors, high contrast for interiors – though his deep focus imagery isn’t quite up there with that of Greg Tolond (who’d done Kane).

The fugitive Nazi makes contact with Prof Rankin
The fugitive Nazi makes contact with Prof Rankin

Even so, Welles hated The Stranger more than any of his other films, partly because he was ashamed at having sold out, and also, surely, because Nims’s incessant snipping (he excised another 16 pages through the rest of the film) left Welles’s acting looking foolish. Welles was after something that was overall sinister and gothic, and acted accordingly – rolling his eyes and twirling the metaphorical baddie moustache – but without the mood-setting, the result resembles something much more like a confused smalltown murder mystery. Critics at the time found it a poor second best to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which the truncated version does resemble.

Nightmares still haunt the edges. Checkers-playing drugstore owner Mr Potter (Billy House), who spiderlike never stirs from behind his cash register, gets far more screen time than his character should, igniting speculation as to what Welles really had planned for him (Potter is almost entirely his creation). Prof Rankin is obsessed with clocks and almost at one point launches into a variation on Welles’s speech on cuckoo clocks as Harry Lime in The Third Man. When we learn of Rankin’s precise contribution to Nazism, it makes more sense, but even so, Nims has robbed this metaphor of much of its power.

Loretta Young is singing from the same hymn sheet as Welles – histrionic, almost silent-movie-esque – leaving Edward G Robinson to walk away with the honours as the utterly watchable Mr Wilson.

Though made in 1946 it’s obviously part of the project of wrapping America up in the affairs of Europe – look! even in this small town Nazis lurk! Welles’s inclusion of footage from the death camps emphasises the stakes but also works like a doomed attempt to add bottom to something that’s largely operating at the light entertainment end of the spectrum. Again thanks to Nims.

But. It was a hit. The only film of Welles’s to make proper money when it was first released. Maybe that’s really why he hated it so much.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Scarlet Street

Kitty and Chris

There’s a “strike while the iron is hot” aspect to 1945’s Scarlet Street, a quick follow-up to 1944’s The Woman in the Window which reunited the three key cast members – Joan Bennett, Edward G Robinson and Dan Duryea – with director Fritz Lang and the ace cinematographer Milton Krasner.

That was noir and so is this, a remake of Jean Renoir’s 1931 film La Chienne (literally, The Bitch). Renoir didn’t like Lang’s remake and nor, later on, would he like Human Desire, Lang’s remake of his La Bête Humaine.

Edward G Robinson was also in the Renoir camp. He didn’t like working on Scarlet Steet much, considering it too similar to The Woman in the Window. He’s not wrong. There are parallels aplenty, thematic and visual, some overt – Lang closes the film with a shot of a painting in the window of a gallery, which is pretty much how he started and ended The Woman in the Window.

Robinson, Bennett and Duryea could be playing clones of the characters from the earlier film. Robinson is Chris Cross (ho ho), a mild-mannered cashier who happens upon a heel beating up a young woman called Kitty one night in Greenwich Village, and saves her by beating off the man with his brolly. This noble deed wins Chris Kitty’s gratitude in the shape of a coffee at a diner, which turns into something a bit stronger as they get to know each other, a sequence of events cut and pasted from The Woman in the Window. Here as there, the mug is instantly smitten. What the unworldly Chris doesn’t realise is that Kitty is a prostitute (a scarlet woman) and the man beating her (Duryea, though his face wasn’t revealed) is her pimp.

She, also getting things all wrong, takes this penpushing weekend painter to be a seriously rich artist who can be systematically taken to the cleaners, which she proceeds to do, in an operation masterminded by the unscrupulous and feckless Johnny (Duryea).

It’s not a carbon copy of The Woman in the Window. In this one Robinson is married, to an absolutely awful, almost cartoonishly petty wife. She (played by Rosalind Ivan with shrewish relish) was married once before, to a cop who died bravely in the line of duty. Chris will never measure up. Kitty also has an appendage, Millie Ray playing the gal pal whose apartment Kitty is camping out in, and who uses the words “working girl” to describe Kitty, which was enough to get this film banned in three US states. Ray is refreshing but her character makes little sense. Perhaps she’s just there to dispel comparisons with the earlier film.

One of Chris's paintings
One of Chris’s paintings. Note snake

It’s a potboiler, heavy on the plot, which becomes more gothic as the hapless Chris is systematically bilked out of money he doesn’t have, robbing his wife and his company to keep within a shot of Kitty. And in a supreme ironic twist, Chris’s hopeless daubs suddenly become hot artistic property, allowing the film to take potshots at artworld hocus pocus of the familiar “my kid could have painted that” variety.

Though Robinson is particularly good, especially in his more despairing moments, Bennett is the film’s star. But then it is a good role. Kitty is the femme very fatale who becomes haughtier and more dirtily magisterial as this sad tale of woe plays out. Until, her facade eventually slipping, she makes the mistake of laughing in the face of the poor Chris, a sap, a dupe, “old” and “ugly”. He responds by… well… 

There are plenty of loose plot strands, which Lang and his writer Dudley Nichols deal with rather brilliantly in a courtroom montage sequence which neatly ties them off, one after the other. There is still, however, a plausibility issue – the character of Chris. For sure this is meant to be a case of “no fool like an old fool” but Chris isn’t a dunce, he’s smart. Which makes his regular misreading of the situations he finds himself in – from the first meeting with Kitty onwards – a bit of a headscratcher.

As regards discs, the Kino Lorber one is a good choice. It’s a hi-def transfer of the 35mm negative from the US Library of Congress. Generally it’s sharp and has a tonally satisfying picture quality thanks to Milton Krasner’s lighting. Because the copyright on this film lapsed there are some truly diabolical copies (or copies of copies) out there, be warned.

Scarlet Street – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Woman in the Window

Alice and the professor meet

Not to be confused with the 2021 movie of the same name, 1944’s The Woman in the Window is the second of three film noirs Fritz Lang made with Joan Bennett and the first of two he’d make with Edward G Robinson. It’s a queer beast – noir with a plot trick picked up from The Wizard of Oz, a trick used so brilliantly it rescues what looks like a film that’s gone weirdly off the rails.

Robinson plays the tweedy psychology professor called Richard, Dick to his friends – Sigmund Freud bubbles around beneath the surface of this plot and that name is no accident – who, while admiring a portrait of a hot babe in a gallery window, turns to see that Alice, the babe herself, is standing in the street beside him. Rapidly leaving his comfort zone, Dick is soon improbably in a club having a drink with Alice, a femme so fatale that you can see her nipples through her sheer top.

It’s all too good to be true, of course, and the fact that the prof is bathed in the sort of gauzy lighting usually reserved for female stars, while Alice is not, suggests that he’s more the quarry than the hunter, an impression only emphasised when she invites him up to her place to see her etchings (sketches of her, in fact).

One death later and the dream has turned to a nightmare, the professor has a body to get rid of and the cops are on his tail. More to the point, though no one actually suspects him, he’s almost giving the game away repeatedly with a series of blunders that the professor’s old friend and drinking buddy, District Attorney Frank Laylor (Raymond Massey), cannot help but have noticed, surely?

The plot is a light lift from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and its theme of self-incrimination would later be used week in, week out in the Columbo TV series (which also acknowledged its debt to Dostoevsky). But in 1944 it was more likely 1930’s The Blue Angel – professor loses head to a nightclub singer – that came to mind.

Heidt blackmails Alice
It’s blackmail: Heidt and Alice

The casting is interesting. Both Bennett and Robinson had started out with completely different screen images than the ones on display here. She’d been the breathy blonde ingenue in a string of films, but after dying her hair dark, pitching her voice a bit lower and swinging the equipment around a bit more, became a classic (and hugely popular) screen vamp. Robinson, by contrast, had risen to fame as a gangster in movies like 1931’s Little Caesar, but then stayed at the top by broadening his range, often playing men like the professor – quiet, unassuming guys with hidden depths.

Playing to type, on the other hand, is Raymond Massey as the DA, Massey’s bark and gimlet eye suggesting he knows that the professor is guilty of something even though the script insists he doesn’t – it’s the tension between Massey’s performance and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay that give the film much of its fizz.

A technical whizz, Fritz Lang’s fluid camera slides in and out of scenes, often on a crane even on low shots, which is how he’s able to glide over obstacles and get right up into the fact of the professor or Alice at key moments. The dialogue, too, is taut and there’s barely a line in Johnson’s screenplay that isn’t the setup to a later payoff.

With half an hour still to go, it all seems to be a case of not if but when will the professor finally expose himself. And then Dan Duryea (again, playing right to type as the “heel with sex appeal”) turns up as a blackmailer trying to shake Alice down.

In the weird finish alluded to in the opening paragraph, Heidt (Duryea) is dealt with in a way that satisfies none of the rules of storytelling, or film noir, or anything at all, until, in a bravura reverse, Johnson’s screenplay brings the whole thing to a conclusion with a twist that is not only satisfying but asks us to look again at some of the storytelling twists and turns we were doubtless only too happy to go along with earlier in the film.

The end. Lang, Bennett, Robinson and Duryea would be back the following year with Scarlet Street, in which something like the same characters run through another satisfying noir scenario featuring silly Edward G, mercenary Joan and bad Dan.

I’m linking to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, a decent version (there are some bad ones out there).

The Woman in the Window – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022