The Stranger (1946)

An agent for a war crimes commission decides, in desperation, to let a German war criminal out of prison in the hopes that he may lead them to another German who committed atrocious acts against humanity during World War II. This other German is suspected to hide under assumed identity somewhere in the United States. He must be found before he can commit new crimes.

Orson Welles and Loretta Young in The Stranger (1946)

Thus begins Orson Welles’ The Stranger, a film where Welles both played one of the leading roles (the German in hiding) and directed. It is one of rather few Orson Welles films that can be found at the Internet Archive, and for that reason alone deserves our attention.

This is a typical film noir in many ways, such as its dramatic camera angles and lighting, and also the script which is full of cynism and human evil.

The version of the film I link to here is an excellent quality MPEG4. If you strive for nothing short of perfection, then there is also a Matroska copy made from the same source, but it is almost five times as large, and I doubt if you will notice the difference.

This film is best enjoyed for Orson Welles, even though many of the supporting cast are also very good. Welles is, as always, excellent in his acting as well as in his directing. And if the plot happens to be just a bit too improbable for this to be any of Welles’ best films, then that just goes to show that this film is a child of its time.

Orson Welles in The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Orson Welles
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (963 M)

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The Night America Trembled (1957)

H. G. Wells’ groundbreaking 19th Century science fiction novel The War of the Worlds is fascinating, not only in itself, but just as much because of all the adaptations and sequels it has spawned. Not only has it resulted in six feature films (the 1953 version is a classic), an infamous TV series, an amazing music album by Jeff Wayne and countless comic adaptations. Perhaps most well-known of all is the 1938 radio dramatization by Orson Welles, an adaptation that allegedly created mass panic (historical consensus nowadays seems to be that it was not quite as bad as all that). Today is the 79th anniversary of that broadcast.

Panic or no panic, the radio drama, together with the events following, has itself been adapted on numerous occasions. Perhaps the first such adaptation was an episode of the CBS TV series Studio One, titled The Night America Trembled.

Warren Beatty and Warren Oates in Studio One: The Night America Trembled (1957)

After a brief introduction, the episode begins with a car racing along a deserted highway. We hear the radio. A voice is talking about the ongoing invasion. The car takes another bend, but too fast. A crash, then everything goes silent. All we see is a spinning wheel.

Through the rest of the episode, we get to follow a number of different people. We see and hear their reactions, and we also get to follow important events in their lives, as they play out to the background of, and sometimes augmented by, the radio.

The cast of this adaptation of an adaptation contains several young actors who would later rise to various levels of fame, not least Warren Beatty and James Coburn. Orson Welles, who both directed and played the main character in the original play, is here played by Robert Blackburn. However, Welles is not once mentioned by name.

In addition to The Night America Trembled, the Internet Archive contains several interesting subjects connected to The War of the Worlds, although not so many on film. A short selection: The original novel The War of the Worlds is a must read; there is also a LibriVox recording. Edison’s Conquest of Mars was one of the first sequels, though truth be told it is a pretty terrible read; again there is a LibriVox recording. Mercury Theatre on the Air: The War of the Worlds is Orson Welles’ original radio play, well worth listening to, and a Universal Studios newsreel from the day after contains some snippets from a press conference with Orson Welles; in itself a classic. Another radio drama is based on the 1953 movie, and with the same principal actors. You can also read the comic adaptation in Classics Illustrated (1955); one of the classic comic versions. Then there is a 1984 video game based on Jeff Wayne’s musical version – expect neither breathtaking graphics nor perfect surround sound. And there is more. Much more.

This episode is best enjoyed perhaps not foremost for its description of Welles’ radio drama and its consequences – as a historical documentary it is sorely lacking. It is much more interesting because it reflects a willingness in society to believe that things are generally much worse than they really are. Many politicians built their careers on this phenomenon, and so to some extent did Orson Welles. In addition, though the technical quality of the available copy leaves something to be desired, the drama is pretty well produced. It will hold your attention for an hour’s entertainment, and it is an excellent example of 1950s American television.

Alexander Scourby and Robert Blackburn (as Orson Welles) in Studio One: The Night America Trembled (1957)

The Night America Trembled
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Year: 1957
Running time: 59 min
Director: Tom Donovan
Stars: Edward R. Murrow
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (320×240)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (247 M)

Freedom River (1971)

This Short Film Month of October continues with a more recent film than previous entries. This time we turn our focus onto a very short and at first sight insignificant little animation that turns out to have layers of depth and meaning in it. The film in question is Freedom River.

Boats and "Immigration" sign from Freedom River (1971)

Made in 1971, Freedom River has to be seen against the historical background of the Vietnam war, and all of the political awakenings and awareness associated with that time. Freedom River is not, strictly speaking, an anti-war film. It is critical to many aspects of American society at the time, and that is probably the reason why it has remained fresh for four and a half decades. Many of the political issues raised in the film are just as relevant today as they were then, and since the film stays with generalisations, without going in-depth on any one subject, it feels almost timeless.

Surprisingly little information is available on the Internet about this little gem of a film. Orson Welles narrated the only voice heard in the film, and you would think that his name alone would generate enough interest for this film to achieve a classic status, but apparently not. One surprising and interesting comment, however, can be found in the film’s user reviews section at the IMDb. Joseph Cavella, the film’s writer, has this to say about the production of Freedom River:

“For several years, Bosustow Productions, a small studio for which I wrote several films, had asked Orson Welles, then living in Paris, to narrate one of their films. He never responded. When I finished the Freedom River script, we sent it to him together with a portable reel to reel tape recorder and a sizable check and crossed our fingers. He was either desperate for money or (I would rather believe) something in it touched him because two weeks later we got the reel back with the narration word for word and we were on our way.”

The film is not without its faults. The animation is very effective, but perhaps overly simplistic at times. Also, there is an undercurrent of patriotism that seems to suggest that freedom and prosperity are inherent in the very land of America (although the actual place is not named). The film would, I think, have been even more powerful if it had acknowledged that humans alone can create a good society, and it could also have mentioned the problems brought upon the Native Americans by the white immigrants. But these are minor quibbles.

This film is best enjoyed as a political allegory for any time. Until we have truly achieved Utopia, this sort of commentary will always remain a reminder of what is important in life.

Beach and houses from Freedom River (1971)

Freedom River
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Year: 1971
Running time: 7 min
Director: Sam Weiss
Stars: Orson Welles (voice)
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (242 M)