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Orson Ascending: The Stranger (1946) from Kino Classics and Othello (1951) from the Criterion Collection

The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger (1946)

By Tony Williams.

Following the release of several new remastered DVDs after the 2015 Orson Welles Centenary and the expected completion of his last unedited feature The Other Side of the Wind sometime in the future, this year sees two more additions continuing Welles’s legacy. Rather than “Orpheus Descending,” it is more a case of “Orson Ascending” with the release of Kino’s edition of The Stranger and Othello from Criterion, both of which provide long unavailable earlier versions of the films. Criterion has not only made accessible the copy that first appeared on laserdisc and then became a collector’s item but also another European copy that has credits spoken by Welles himself. Before Kino processed their copy in high definition from an original 35mm print preserved by the Library of Congress, The Stranger circulated on VHS and DVD in poor public domain versions so that the lost visual richness of the original corresponded to the film title of Tennessee Williams play “Orpheus Descending” as The Fugitive Kind to be only seen in the Library of Congress. Now that the primary version is available viewers can appreciate the artistry of Welles’s one film deliberately made for the film industry to prove his commercial viability but also illustrating traces of cinematic artistry he displayed before and afterwards. With Othello viewers can now gain access to earlier versions rather than become limited to the controversial 1999 restoration whose flaws have been amply documented by Michael Anderegg and Jonathan Rosenbaum. (1)

As well as its visual restoration (give or take a few minor flaws), this copy benefits from an excellent audio-commentary by Bret Wood, author of the indispensable Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography (1990) and that very informative article “Recognizing The Stranger,” Video Watchdog 13 (1994): 28-39. Far from being a celebrity, he is a familiar name in the field of archival restoration, an accomplished critic, screenwriter, and director of several films among which is The Unwanted (2014) that an article in the last Video Watchdog issue acclaimed as one of the best film versions of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” (2) Wood describes this film as undervalued in Welles’s filmography and much more complex than it initially appears stylistically and thematically, a judgement with which I wholeheartedly agree with for other reasons. (3) Noting the production circumstances of this film, Wood not only refers to key visual scenes in meticulous detail but also fills in the gaps from what was either edited out of Welles’s original version or initially appeared in the screenplay but was never actually filmed. Estimates of the original version range from 100 to 110 minutes but all we now have is the approximately 94-minute version derived from an International Pictures print that ends with a different shot showing “The End” superimposed on a shot of Edward G. Robinson lighting his pipe.

Welles 02Wood also notes relatively brief appearances of the single long take in several sequences recognizing the ruthless role of editor Ernest Nims in ruining other attempts such as the beginning of Senora Martinez’s pursuit of Meinike outside the ship. Although Welles now worked as a contract director in the system, here making a film designed to turn a profit (which it did, the only one of his films to do so), this constraint did not totally eliminate aspects of creativity as well as its relationship to the director’s well-known social and political views of the time – aptly illustrated by the additional feature radio commentaries on this disc. It was a film that reflected his contemporary political fears about the resurgence of Fascism – and contemporary events seventy one years later prove that he was correct in hindsight. Wood notes the survival of one long take that lasts four minutes beginning with Kindler’s greeting Meinike and ending with a murder. Welles’s original version of Macbeth (1948), made prior to Rope (1948, as noted by Rosenbaum), anticipates Hitchcock’s film with Welles’s use of the ten-minute take. Wood speculates whether Hitchcock may have seen The Stranger. Although this latter film appears a lesser achievement to those emphasizing the artistic nature of Welles, Wood points out significant parallels to Graham Greene “entertainments” such as Ministry of Fear (1944) and This Gun for Hire (1942) that complement Welles’ similar interest in mysteries that he attempted to film such as Smiler with a Knife and other 1940s projects. Wood sees the “born again” Meinike as very much of a Greene character and his seedy demeanor would make him a recognizable addition to “Greeneland.” Noir elements within The Stranger are noted by Wood who also sees the film as a modern Gothic with its naïve heroine resembling those in Rebecca (1940) and Jane Eyre (1943).

The Stranger can also be viewed as a version of the Gothic horror in the immediate post-war era with Mary not only being the equivalent of the heroine in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), who unwittingly marries one of the architects of the Final Solution who certainly did not come from outer space but also a naïve heroine in danger of becoming a Bride of Dracula very much like her Bram Stoker counterpart featured also in Welles’ celebrated 1938 RKO Mercury Theatre Radio adaptation initially standing by her man like Tammy Wynette before her conscious mind realizes the consequences of her actions. After witnessing concentration camp footage, Mary reacts like a vampire fearful of the sunlight and insisting on the curtains being drawn in the house she shares with Kindler. Her naïve complicity equates her with one of Dracula’s many female victims. Other additional ideas emerge from Wood’s carefully constructed commentary, one that shows what can be achieved when a real expert rather than a celebrity is chosen for this important task.

This DVD also contains very relevant features such as the 1945 21-minute informational film on Nazi concentration camps, Death Mills, some relatively mild selections of which appear in The Stranger. Since we have the advantage of seeing the whole documentary and more knowledge of what Mary actually witnessed (allowing for The Stranger’s abbreviated running time) the audience can now fully appreciate the horror she sees rather than the edited sections meant to spare contemporary American audiences from confronting the full implications of the Holocaust in a Hollywood film and asking why their Government never bombed railway lines leading to concentration camps or sent commandos in to free their inhabitants long before their eventual liberation mostly by the Red Army.

Welles 04Four complete Welles wartime radio broadcasts follow. They illustrating his serious concerns over the contemporary struggle against Fascism, while also revealing careful blending of documentary drama and entertainment paralleling his important radio work in the 30s and 40s. The 1942 Alameda (Nazi Eyes on Canada) is a dystopian fantasy depicting the conquest of Canada (and the United States) in 1949 when the last resistance fighter has been betrayed. Although it resembles the infamous 1962 Cold War documentary Red Nightmare hosted by Jack Webb, it is far from pedantic and more creative in its serious warning resembling Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s 1965 drama-documentary It Happened Here. The drama documentary also existed in the silent era with propaganda World War One films but like Shakespeare’s appropriation of Holinshead and other sources, Welles reworked precedents in his own artistic type of authorship. Welles wrote and produced “Alameda” but did not direct it. However, his creative input is undeniable.

“Brazil” is an episode of the 1942 series Hello Americans where Welles acts in the role of cultural ambassador south of the border. He introduces his listeners to the musical creativity of Brazilian music, educates audiences into the intricacies of the Samba, and even joins in a duet with the very popular Carmen Miranda who would later contradict Freud’s axiom of “Sometimes A Pipe is just a Pipe” with her display of bananas in the technicolor musical sequence from The Gang’s All Here (1943) directed by Busby Berkeley. In this extract Welles is clearly “having fun” in the Howard Hawks sense enjoying the nature of Latin American music and promoting its cultural resonances to American audiences. If only RKO executives viewing footage of the Brazil carnival sequence from Welles’s aborted It’s All True (1943) project had been less prejudiced!

“War Workers” (1942) begins by adopting a War of the Worlds deception scenario with a Nazi agent infiltrating an aircraft factory and reporting his findings before he is apprehended. At this point fiction ends and “Why We Fight” propaganda begins but in a less didactic and hectoring manner than that 1942 documentary series. Welles interviews various Rosie the Riveters who range from young to old (and even blind) all performing male defined tasks for the war effort, an Italian immigrant male with eight children (four of which are in uniform) presenting the Allied opposition as multi-cultural and multi-gendered – “All the races in the world are here” – telling the Fascist powers that the “little people are the future,” something the Cold War home front would soon destroy.

Welles’s June 30, 1946 broadcast on the “Bikini Atom Test” is much more multilayered and hesitant. As well as recognizing the nature of this world changing event, Welles notes its darker implications – “The living in all times have turned their backs on the necessity of death.” Yet, he implies that things are much different now, in reservations of his tone. Certain lines in his commentary express fear in how possession of the Bomb involves the “uneasiness of our moral agenda.” He critiques the commodification of products such as “Atom Lipsticks” and articulates the necessity of a “mutual plan” to deal with this first appearance of a “weapon of mass destruction.” This is a very foreboding commentary to end these extracts and suggests that Welles’s lack of patriotic euphoria would soon lead to unwelcome attention by the House of Un-American Activities and his decision to work abroad in the late 1940s.

Welles 03Criterion’s new three-disc version of Othello not only restores most features from the extremely rare and sought after original 1999 Laserdisc version of the 1955 film but adds new material as well as supplements from that version back into circulation. It also contains the 1952 European cut where Welles speaks opening introductory lines and end credits with two minutes of additional footage. Disc One features the 1955 American version with expert audio-commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and Myron Meisel from the 1999 laser release as well as several features that appeared on Disc Two of that edition. These include a remastered edition of Welles’s last completed work, the essay documentary Filming Othello shown in 1979, along with a revised version of two interviews with Suzanne Cloutier that French Canadian television produced. Directed by Francois Girard in 1995, they comprise the earlier laserdisc versions “Suzanne Cloutier in Venice” and “After Othello” where the actress speaks in English as opposed to French in the first interview. She speaks very fondly of Welles as director and mentor regarding Othello as his last great leading role while in the second interview conducted against the background of the North African locations used in the second part of the film Cloutier mentions that the project almost ruined his health seeing the drastic change from the 33-year-old, relatively slim young man of the project’s beginning into an old man at the end who had ate and drank too much. “He paid dearly for that ultimate effort.” Had the film been successful in America, Welles intended to revive the Mercury Theatre Company but his declining reputation and obstacles affected him adversely. Cloutier mentions that she was responsible for finding money from Iran to continue The Other Side of the Wind and was on the plane with set designer Alexander Trauner with the Don Quixote negative footage Welles wished to edit in California when they heard of his death. Cloutier poignantly adds, “He was just trying to share with us, his world, his immense world.” This is a touching documentary marred only by the fact that the Criterion editors chose to use the opening scene of Othello from the 1992 restoration that Jonathan Rosenbaum has correctly condemned due to its ignoring the richness and superiority of Lavagnino’s original score.

One of the most intriguing featurettes is the 1952 23-minute short Return to Glennascaul: A Story that is Told in Dublin (1952). Introduced by Peter Bogdanovich, this short was made between the shooting of Othello when Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir had to return to Dublin for their Gate Theatre season. Although credits cite Edwards as director, one suspects that Orson may have had much more to do with it than just appearing as himself in the opening and closing scenes and speaking the narrative framing the traveler’s tale. In an earlier review, Tim Lucas notes that “the short contains many signature moments that betray Welles’s involvement behind the camera.” (4) Since this was the only film credited to Edwards as director, one wonders whether we have another instance of The Thing from Another World (1951) where the nominal producer was the director in reality, only in this case with the director standing behind the camera or offering advice on certain occasions. The narrative structure of this short strongly suggests this possibility since it acutely resembles many of the experimental radio programs of The Mercury Theatre in the late 1930s.

Welles 05It begins with a prominent shot of a studio light reminiscent of that microphone used by Welles to illustrate his spoken final credit as director of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Welles is recording one of the lines from Othello before deciding to take a break. When he emerges from the sound booth we do not see the actor but only his gigantic shadow. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” began the introduction to his popular 1937-38 popular radio series in which he played The Shadow. The “obedient servant” line from his radio productions also significantly occurs. This short reveals Welles without make-up stopping to give Sean Merriman’s stranded motorist a lift as he listens to the unfolding tale as well as operating as narrator during the story. This is so reminiscent of his radio work and Welles throws in certain signature themes and in-jokes responding ironically to the motorist’s vehicle problems with “I’ve had trouble with my distribution.” During the tale, the motorist speaks of picking up two stranded females who invite him inside their house significantly named “Glennascaul” or “Glen of the Shadows.” Expressionist noir lighting dominates the interior evoking not only Welles’s familiarity with the technique but also The Gate Theatre’s reputation for introducing European theatre to Irish audiences often using expressionist lighting during its heyday as opposed to the more traditional presentations of The Abbey Theatre. The loud ticking of a clock is heard evoking Welles’s experiments in sound on radio and film. Sound echoes accompany the fleeing traveler as he realizes the nature of his experience the previous evening. The screen image dissolves leading to an optical edit of Welles cleaning his car window as he drives. Another shot that suggests Welles behind the camera is the one revealing the older woman at the left foreground watching her younger daughter and the visitor depart from the room seen though a mirror in the center background. This strongly evokes Welles’ interest in mirror shots not just in Othello but also in one of the episodes of his UK TV series Around the World with Orson Welles (1955). Simon Callow describes the film as “quintessentially Wellesian” anticipating later works such as The Fountain of Youth (1958) and F for Fake (1974) seeing them all as “filmic transpositions of Welles’s radio work of the 1930s.” (5)

However, this is far from being a traditional ghost story since the narrative leaves open the possibility that the preceding events may be part of Irish traditional ”blarney” perpetuated on the unwary stranger. Welles was often a “merry prankster” as his well-known 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast revealed. The ambiguous expression on the face of Michael Laurence who plays Merriman suggests this. Also, towards the end back on the road, Welles swerves so he does not have to pick up two stranded females waiting at the same place Merriman did with his earlier encounter of not so blithe spirits. The penultimate image cuts to the two amazed woman. One says, “Did you see who that was?” The other replies, “Yes, but I don’t believe it.” As well as the knowing celebrity association, the comment also would echo Holly’s feelings when he sees the resurrected Harry Lime for the first time during that celebrated Vienna night sequence in The Third Man (1949). Did they see Orson Welles or Harry Lime? Only The Shadow knows.

Welles 06The next disc includes the 1952 European version of Othello along with several interviews. Simon Callow speaks about the problematic relationship between Welles and his Gate Theatre colleagues both during and after the production of the film while Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America (2011), provides a lucid analysis about the play and its various performers from Richard Burbage, Ira Aldridge, Paul Robeson to the present day. Joseph McBride contributes his usual informative and learned critical expertise on the film. Although critical of Welles’s performance, he provides some interesting insights concerning the betrayal motif in the film suggesting that John Houseman may have been Welles’s Iago.

Francois Thomas provides a detailed analysis of the differences between the two versions of Othello, noting slight editing changes and sound remixes. Co-author of Orson Welles at Work (2008), Thomas reveals his detailed expertise in this area. At the same time, I must direct readers to continuing discussions on www.wellesnet.com. It is the major internet site on this talent that continues its undisputed expertise in this area with contributions by so many informed people who are not celebrities hunted for DVD audio-commentary marquee value. Finally, Geoffrey O’Brien’s liner notes “In Pieces” provides a lucid description of the rationale behind the structure of this noticeably fragmented narrative understanding the production circumstances prompting Welles “toward a style of rapid and disjunctive editing whose rhythms define the film’s essential mood.” His vision coheres, but it is precisely a vision of a world already falling to pieces. Culturally and historically, Welles appears very much a man of his time and a recent book on certain stylistically radical post-war German rubble films has noted parallels to similar techniques employed in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Macbeth. (6)

This Criterion edition offers not just two long awaited restorations but also informed commentaries and features revealing justified critical recognition of a figure ascending into greater prominence than ever. Before contradicting the title of a well-known Howard Hawks film of 1939, the set reveals the role of another human who took risks in the realm of cinematic artistry complementing those heroic aviators who sometimes succeed against great odds. Not “only angels have wings.”

Notes

  1. See, Michael Anderegg, Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, 98-122; Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Othello Goes Hollywood.” Discovering Orson Welles. California: The University of California Press, 2007, 163-174.
  2. See “John-Paul Checkett, “How do you solve a Problem like Carmilla? Part Two,” Video Watchdog 184, 2017, 42- 44.
  3. Tony Williams, “Contextualizing The Stranger.” Film International 14.2 (2016). 21-42.
  4. Tim Lucas, “Welles’ `Lost’ Ghost Story.” Video Watchdog 23 (1994): 77.
  5. Simon Callow, Orson Welles: One Man Band. London: Jonathan Cape (2015), 113, 114.
  6. Martina Moeller, Rubble, Ruins and Romanticism. Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld/New York, Columbia University Press, 2013, 301.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University of Carbondale and Contributing Editor to Film International.

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