The Stranger is a 1946 film noir directed by Orson Welles, who also stars along with Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young. Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay, the film is unique for having been Welles’ only film to turn a profit during its initial theatrical release. It has never before been available in a high definition format, but now Film Chest has digitally restored the film and partnered with Virgil Films to release it as a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.
Classic film fans, especially Orson Welles enthusiasts, have long bemoaned the lack of a properly restored release of The Stranger. The film’s copyright protection was not maintained, which resulted in public domain status beginning in 1973. The Stranger has unfortunately been released and rereleased over the years as a bargain-bin title. These cheapo VHS and DVD releases have disgraced the film with scratched, jittery, poor-contrast transfers that were barely watchable. This digital restoration is not comparable to the best Criterion presentations, but Film Chest has done an impressive job cleaning up a 35mm print. The Blu-ray/DVD combo retails at a budget price of $15.99, more than fair for a chance to see The Stranger presented so solidly.
The very fact that The Stranger was directed by Orson Welles, his third feature film following Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), makes it historically valuable. Though generally not regarded as highly as his masterworks, it remains an intriguing and philosophically engaging film. The story concerns a Nazi war criminal who managed to flee Germany following World War II, establishing a new identity as a college professor in a small Connecticut town. Welles plays this notorious fugitive, who has changed his name from Franz Kindler to Charles Rankin, with ruthless, menacing authority. Edward G. Robinson is Mr. Wilson, a Nazi-hunter working for the United Nations War Crimes Commission. Mr. Wilson suggests the intentional release of another Nazi, Kindler’s partner in crime Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), in hopes of being led to Kindler.
The ensuing thriller holds up well all these years later thanks to Welles’ strength as a storyteller. As was the case with most of Welles’ films the producers meddled with the film, forcing cuts that resulted in lost footage. But the pacing and tension in the film remain compelling, with Mr. Wilson methodically tracking Kindler in a classic cat-and-mouse scenario. Loretta Young co-stars as Mary Rankin, Franz/Charles’ newlywed wife. Young’s performance as the naive Mary is a bit over the top in terms of melodrama. She does have some nice moments, however, as she gradually comes to see the true nature of her husband’s character. Welles boldly included some brief – but real – concentration camp footage, the first post-war film to do so. Kindler shocks his wife by screening this footage for her, with Young allowing Mary’s denial to shift finally to horrified acceptance.
The Stranger is presented in fullscreen, framed in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. As evidenced by a brief side-by-side restoration demo included, many flaws inherent in the available print have been corrected. Unfortunately, the resulting image does not retain a film-like appearance. The digital buffing and polishing, necessary to remove dirt, burns, scratches, and other flaws, has smoothed out the image to the point where no grain is visible. It’s all a trade-off though in order to get this film looking as good as it does here. Wide shots are sorely lacking in detail, but most close-ups are very impressively detailed. The contrast level, which changed dramatically from scene to scene (sometimes shot to shot) in previous releases, is consistent throughout the entire film. Brightly lit scenes, particularly anything outdoors, are blown out and hazy. But again this is overall a very strong presentation, all things considered.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is not recommended. Given its age, the film was of course originally mixed in mono and that’s how it should have been presented. The new mix attempts to expand the original audio across the surround spectrum, but the results are hardly worth the effort. The mix doesn’t engage the surround or LFE channels in any meaningful way. The better option, though still not the original mono, is the 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix. The audio is far from perfect, with lots of hissy ambient noise present throughout. Thankfully the dialogue is clear and easy to understand. Most people don’t expect to be wowed by the mix for a 1946 movie, so despite the imperfections the audio is entirely acceptable.
Film Chest has done admirable job of presenting The Stranger for the first time in high definition. Besides the film’s trailer and aforementioned brief restoration demo, there are no supplemental features accompanying their Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. But the price is right for what is this film’s best home video presentation to date.