“It’s the only picture of that kind I ever made; or ever will make” (Orson Welles, commenting on The Stranger)
“…there isn’t a single symbol in it.” (Orson Welles, commenting on The Trial)
The combination of two of Orson Welles’s directorial (and acting) efforts into one DVD package using restored versions and a collection of appropriate supplements sounds on the surface like an inspired idea. The actual execution, however, can be problematic. Except in a few instances, the state of ownership of Welles’s films is rather murky and if you go with public domain titles, considerable resources may be necessary to obtain good source material. FocusFilm Entertainment tried something like this before with four of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films combined with 15 hours of Holmes radio broadcasts in a package it called An Evening with Sherlock Holmes. The idea was good and the supplement material was a pleasure to have, but the film transfers left much to be desired. FocusFilm has now returned with Citizen Welles which includes two public domain titles — The Stranger (1946) and The Trial (1963) — with extensive supplementary material. The difference this time is that FocusFilm is billing this package as being “fully restored and remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1.” Does Citizen Welles live up to its billing?
Franz Kindler is a sought-after war-crimes criminal who has come to the small New England town of Harper, Connecticut where he has assumed an identity as teacher Charles Rankin. Trying to track him down is War-Crimes Commission investigator Wilson. Wilson arranges the escape of an associate of Kindler’s named Meineke and then proceeds to follow Meineke in hopes that Meineke will lead him to Kindler. Meineke does lead Wilson to the town of Harper but is murdered before he can reveal who Kindler is. Wilson must then try to unearth Kindler with his only clue being Kindler’s interest in repairing old clocks.
Joseph K awakens to find two policemen in his apartment who accuse him of an unidentified crime. Pleading his innocence and angry at the lack of any information about what he’s been accused of, he confronts the judicial system at court but receives no satisfaction at all. With the aid of his uncle, he retains a prominent advocate to defend him, but becomes disenchanted when he meets a long-suffering client of the advocate’s. Joseph’s desire for justice takes him through a surreal world that ultimately reinforces the futility of his search.
The Stranger was a production of Sam Spiegel (before the days of his better known films such as On The Waterfront and The Bridge on the River Kwai) in association with Bill Goetz for International Pictures with distribution by RKO. Welles was hired to direct and act in what was essentially a studio production that allowed for little script input from him. In fact, he did make some contributions to the script, particularly the addition of appreciable introductory sequences based in South America. Some two reels of this material were shot, but later scrapped by the producers who felt that it delayed the heart of the story in the New England town. Of course, Welles thought this much the more original and visually interesting part of the film. Welles also pushed to have the investigator played by Edward G. Robinson portrayed instead by Agnes Morehead, but again was overruled.
Despite Welles’s lack of ultimate control, the resulting film is an effective thriller. Robinson does his usual good work and Welles is okay as Kindler, although he looks a little uncomfortable at times. An interesting character study is provided by veteran vaudevillian Billy House as the checkers-playing druggist, and the sequence in which Kindler tries to solidify an alibi while playing checkers with the druggist is nicely done. The clock-tower sequences provide Welles with several opportunities to demonstrate his inventiveness with light and shadow, and unexpected camera angles.
Interestingly, The Stranger was the only film made by Welles to show a profit upon its initial release. A little over a year after its July 1946 appearance, it had generated almost three and a quarter million dollars against a negative cost of $1 million.
The Trial came about because of a small role Welles had had in Abel Gance’s Austerlitz. He had met Alexander Salkind and his son and they wanted Welles to do a film based on “Taras Bulba.” There was already a version in production in Hollywood (starring Yul Brynner), so it was decided instead to do an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” Welles basically had a free hand to write the script, select the cast, and direct. Money was a problem for the sort of sets Welles wanted to use, but in the end he was able to film most of what he wanted at the abandoned Paris railway depot, the Gare d’Orsay.
That the resulting film is a visual triumph is obvious on the first viewing. Less obvious is the film’s thoughtful view of Kafka’s novel. It captures the dreamlike nature of the book as well as its air of inescapable doom. It also manages many sequences that reflect the book’s humour as well. We perhaps don’t recognize these as such on a first viewing of the film as we try to understand exactly what we are seeing, but they are more and more evident on repeated viewings. Part of this is due to Anthony Perkins’s nervous (or perhaps I should say, agitated) portrayal of Joseph K. Concentrating on him tends to make the viewer miss so much else of what’s going on. The rest of the cast is a treat — from Welles himself as the Advocate (a role that he reluctantly undertook when his own choice, Jackie Gleason, wasn’t available), to Akim Tamiroff as a long-suffering client of the Advocate, to the temptations provided by Jeanne Moreau and Romy Schneider, to a raft of unknowns with small but memorable portrayals.
FocusFilm’s restoration of these two films is one in name only. Rather poor source prints (or maybe even videotape versions) have had a digital clean-up applied to them. Admittedly, this has removed lots of scratches and nicks, but image sharpness has suffered and what we are left with are DVD efforts that are about on a par with mediocre VHS copies. The Stranger (1.37:1 full frame) is the poorer-looking of the two. Much of the image is washed-out and dark scenes are murky with poor shadow detail. The film was previously made available on DVD by Roan Group, and although that transfer has more scratches and the like, it is much sharper and consequently superior to FocusFilm’s effort. The Trial (1.66:1 non-anamorphic, not 1.8:1 nor 1.85:1 as variously listed on the disc packaging) comes off a little better. It’s not as soft looking, but the increased sharpness comes with noticeable edge enhancement. Shadow detail is better than on The Stranger, but overall, the transfer is not close to being one of the better black and white efforts. Image has a separate DVD release of The Trial available that looks somewhat superior to the version in FocusFilm’s package.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also in many ways disappointments, mainly because they are provided instead of the original tracks as opposed to just being added alternatives. For The Stranger, there’s little benefit to the new mix for it sounds just like a single channel mono presentation anyway. Age-related hiss and distortion does appear to be reduced compared to other versions of the film that I’ve heard. For The Trial, the impact of the new mix is more noticeable, at least directionally, as the sound is spread across the front speakers with occasional surround effects apparent. There’s little richness to the whole experience, however.
The list of supplements on this two-disc set is not bad at all. We first get audio commentaries on both films by film critic Jeffrey Lyons. He comes across as quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them. He is strongest on production detail and cast information. Unfortunately, he loses some credibility due to his view on the quality of the “restorations.” One of his statements — “This restoration is in perfect condition” — is just laughable. Then, there is the six-minute long Hearts of Age (1934) — Welles’s first film, which he co-directed and appeared in. This is a real gem of the package, for despite its rather ragged condition, it gives a great glimpse at the lighting, camera, and cutting techniques that Welles would elaborate on in his later features. A 20-minute documentary narrated by Welles historian Richard French provides some perspective on the two films and then addresses the restoration process. Included are comments by some of the restoration technicians, but these come across as rather casual-sounding, which is pretty much in line with the quality of the restoration. Two theatrical trailers and two galleries of production stills round out the discs.
An ambitious effort by FocusFilm to present two of Orson Welles’s films along with appropriate supplements is a mixed blessing at best. The Stranger and The Trial are both deserving of a good DVD release and being public domain films, require extensive restorative work to make them look their best. Unfortunately, despite FocusFilm’s claims, the restorations presented in Citizen Welles do not do the films justice, with the results being indistinguishable from VHS-quality transfers. There is value in the supplementary material which might justify a rental (particularly the commentaries and the early Welles short film), but if it’s just the films that interest you, you’re better off seeking out the separate Roan Group and Image DVD releases.