American filmmaker and director Orson Welles remains one of the finest artists of all time. His 1941 film Citizen Kane is widely hailed as one of the greatest feature films ever made, and we constantly see its influence across contemporary popular culture, reflecting just how profound Welles’ impact has proven to be.
However, this was not the only masterwork Welles gifted to the world of cinema, and far from it. The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil are just three of the stellar moments he gave us on the silver screen, and they too have stood the test of time.
Outside of the realm of movies, Welles also reflected his prowess as a director for the Federal Theatre Project, creating high-profile stage productions that were far beyond their era. His adaptation of Macbeth in 1936 made the headlines as its cast was entirely composed of African-Americans, an incredibly pioneering move for the time. Understandably, it was also controversial, given the state of race relations in the country and that the racist Jim Crow laws were the de jure and de facto ruler.
Welles was an iconoclast with an off-stage persona as colourful as many of the characters he assumed over his career. His life is an odyssey, with the many twists and turns you’d expect of someone so revered.
What’s also interesting about his life is that because of the success of his most prominent films such as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, some of his other significant works get overlooked, such as 1946’s The Stranger. The picture was Welles’ first piece of film noir and a powerful take on World War Two, the horrors of which were fresh in the memories of all. Unsurprisingly for a film so topical, it was the only Welles effort to gain immediate box office success.
The narrative of The Stranger follows a United Nations Nazi Hunter, Mr. Wilson, portrayed by Edward G. Robinson a legend of Hollywood’s Golden Age, taking on Franz Kindler, a Third Reich war criminal played by Welles. Wilson finds Kindler hiding in a small town in Connecticut, where he has assumed a new identity.
Desperate to bring the Nazi to justice, Wilson comes into contact with Kindler’s unsuspecting wife, and to show her the truth about her husband’s past, he shows her actual footage of Nazi concentration camps.
This part made all the headlines, as it was unprecedented for the time. It became the first Hollywood film to present documentary footage of the Holocaust, meaning that the horror you see on the face of actress Loretta Young is real, giving the film a tangible essence as the war had only finished a year prior. For many people in America, this was the first time they’d seen footage of what had happened in Europe, making the film an oddity in the sense that it is both a documentary and a piece of fiction.
Such was the nature of Orson Welles. A lifelong critic of fascism, he knew the power of cinema and how it could open people’s eyes.
Watch The Stranger in full, below.