THE DVD SHELF: Chaplin's "City Lights," Welles' "The Stranger" and "Despicable Me 2"

By Steven Suskin
24 Nov 2013

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Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a U.N. war crimes investigator on the trail of the mastermind behind Hitler's concentration camps, prevails on officials to let Nazi commandant Konrad Meinike escape in the hope that he will lead them to the infamous Franz Kindler. Wilson follows Meinike to small-town Connecticut, where the latter is immediately killed. Unable to find Kindler, Wilson begins to suspect Charles Rankin (Welles), a prep school history professor who has just married Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Clearly beyond suspicion. And yet... What follows is a stunning cat-and-mouse game, with Wilson closing in on his prey.

This relatively little-known film has always been a special pleasure, but the new Blu-ray makes a major difference in the viewing experience. "The Stranger" had unaccountably been allowed to lapse into the public domain in 1973; when the home video business was established a few years later, there was thus no owner to provide high-quality materials for transfer. As a result, the DVD market has been strewn with releases of indifferent quality. For this edition, Kino has joined with the Library of Congress, which had an original print of the film, to give us "The Stranger" as it was always meant to look.

Welles is his usual creative self; this black and white film is all shade and shadows, with pools of darkness and splintered shards of light. Welles uses light psychologically, and what has always looked fuzzy turns out to be carefully calculated. The film is no better now than it was then, but the new mastering allows us to see and appreciate what Welles did while putting enhanced thrills in the thriller. We also can see how he carefully kept himself — as a portrait of modern-day evil — in those splinters of light.

Welles and Robinson, both, give masterful performances. Young does not; to modern-day eyes, this seems like a primer in overacting but doesn't harm the film's effectiveness. There's also a canny character-actor performance by an actor named Billy House, as a small-town druggist and all-round busybody. Whenever he goes to play checkers with Robinson, Welles has him eagerly reach for a casino dealer's visor. (House, a former vaudevillian, was popular with Disney animators; he served as live-action model for Doc in "Snow White" and Smee in "Peter Pan.")

In a film filled with images, the most powerful is the New England clock tower. (Kindler was known to be an expert clock restorer, which is how Wilson uncovers his identity.) The clock is in the background of dozens of shots, and the action culminates with a chase through the tower — and with a memorable meeting between the star/villain and a medieval statue with a sword that circles when the hour strikes!

Welles also introduces a more sinister image: Excerpts from footage taken when the Allies liberated the concentration camps. This is somewhat incidental to the action — it is used to try to convince Mary of her husband's true identity — but the filmmaker makes a strong statement at a time when this footage had not been widely seen. (Welles presumably sought to garner public support for the Nuremberg Trials, which were still underway when the film was released).

This footage is taken from a propaganda documentary produced by the U.S. Department of War called "Death Mills," which was used to educate the German public and American officials about what had taken place. Austrian-born Billy Wilder, who had just finished "The Lost Weekend" — and who lost his mother, step-father and grandmother in the war — directed. In a surprising but welcome bit of packaging, Kino has added the full "Death Mills" as a bonus feature. While this makes difficult viewing, it is just as impactful today as it must have been in 1945 — although today's audience cannot be quite so surprised by what they see. Most striking, along with the footage of countless piles of corpses plus survivors who look like living skeletons, are shots of wooden crates filled with wedding rings and bales human hair (in varied colors) that were sold to local wigmakers. (Nowhere in "Death Mills," by the way, do they mention the religion of the victims.) The 22-minute film ends with a chilling sequence in which the authorities force local villagers to tour the camps in their neighborhoods. They go in laughing and joking, as if prepared for a picnic; they come out shocked, as if they've witnessed their own death.