Toronto Film Society presented The Stranger (1946) on Saturday, January 22, 2022 as part of the Season 74 Film Buffs Screening Series, Programme 4.
Production Company: International Pictures. Producer: Sam Spiegel. Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Orson Welles. Screenplay: Anthony Veiller; uncredited: John Huston, Orson Welles. Music: Bronislaw Kaper. Cinematography: Russell Metty. Film Editor: Ernest J Nims.
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Mr. Wilson), Loretta Young (Mary Longstreet), Orson Welles (Professor Charles Rankin), Philip Merivale (Judge Adam Longstreet), Richard Long (Noah Longstreet), Konstantin Shayne (Konrad Meinike), Byron Keith (Dr. Jeffrey Lawrence), Billy House (Mr. Potter), Martha Wentworth (Sara).
The Stranger is the third Hollywood film directed by Orson Welles. Unlike Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, it was financially successful, and he completed the film under budget and a day earlier than scheduled. The film received positive reviews and it has come to be considered a classic film noir.
The production designer, Perry Ferguson, and cinematographer, Russell Metty, created a film of juxtapositions in its look. The opening scenes are filled with shadows, acute angles and depth of focus shots, which then transitions into a bright idyllic New England town in autumn. The charming New England town slowly fades from a Norman Rockwell image to one more akin to Edward Gorey, Charles Addams or Gahan Wilson. The use of windows and mirrors to frame shots or add dimension is very effective and should be noted by the viewer. The Stranger is unfortunate in that, like many Hollywood films, it suffers from studio interference. Welles was upset with the films editor, Ernnest J. Nims, who had cut 32 pages of the script, including the first 16 pages. These cuts affected the character development and support Welles’ opinion of Nims that he was a “super cutter”.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson are the ‘big name’ stars attached to the film; the supporting players are excellent character actors and add much to the film’s ambience.
Notable among these is Billy House as the shop owner Mr. Potter. He figures prominently in his scenes with Robinson and Welles without ever leaving his seat behind the counter. Customers who come into his shop have to get their own coffee and all Potter does is open the cash register till for them to drop money in. His checker board is a prominent part of his character as he plays games with Robinson and Welles. It appears he is cheating at checkers during his scenes with Robinson and Welles when he subtly moves checkers while they’re not looking.
During the filming of The Stranger, Welles grew to be very fond of Billy House and his many talents, such that Welles added scenes with Billy House to the film. These added scenes meant Robinson lost screen time, which didn’t sit well with Robinson. Fortunately, his complaints to the studio went nowhere as the executives sided with Welles.
Welles used Billy House in an unsold television anthology series titled The Fountain of Youth (1956) and the film Touch of Evil (1958). As well as his appearances in the Orson Welles projects, Billy House was in 24 movies between 1931 and 1959. He also had an impressive stage career that began in the 1920’s and it wasn’t long before he became a favourite of critics and fans. House was also used by Walt Disney as the inspiration for the characters of Doc (in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)) and as Smee (in Peter Pan (1953)).
The Stranger does suffer from some character development failings, that can be attributed to the editor. However, overall it is a fine film noir bolstered by Welles’ directorial style and spectacular cinematography and performances.
Notes by Carol and Bruce Whittaker