February 9, 2011 -- This is a film noir classic along the lines of “The Night of the Hunter.” Well, it isn't that creepy, but it is a similar “wolf in the fold” kind of story. A woman slowly begins to discover that the man she just married is a killer of unfathomable evil. The film features common film noir traits of paranoia, dramatic black and white photography and liberal use of shadows and severely limited lighting to enhance the film's suspenseful mood.
The evil man, Professor Charles Rankin (played by Orson Welles of “Citizen Kane,” who also directs this film) is seemingly a mild-mannered history teacher at a New England boy's school. In reality, he is a notorious Nazi war criminal, Franz Kindler, living under an assumed name. He will do whatever it takes to protect his secret. The film opens on the day of his wedding to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young of “The Bishop's Wife”) who is the daughter of Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale), a Supreme Court justice. Rankin is sure this marriage will provide him cover so he can keep his real identity secret until Nazis rise to power again. He was instrumental in creating the death camps where millions of Jews were killed during World War II.
Rankin is displeased when a former associate of his, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) shows up on the day of his wedding. Meinike was intentionally set free by authorities who hope that Meinike will lead them to Kindler. Meinike is the only man alive who can identify Franz Kindler. Kindler has carefully destroyed all evidence of what his face looks like. Meinike is able to injure Wilson (Edward G. Robinson of “Double Indemnity”) the man following him, and elude him. He meets Rankin in secret. Rankin, thinking no one has followed Meinike, kills him and buries the body in the woods that night, eliminating the last person who can identify him as Franz Kindler.
Wilson thinks Franz Kindler is in the small town where Meinike led him, hiding under an assumed name, but without Meinike he doesn't know who this might be. It is a small town, however, and there aren't too many strangers. Wilson methodically begins narrowing down his list of suspects until there is one likely suspect left on his list, Rankin, but he still has no proof. He begins applying pressure, hoping Rankin will make a slip. This game of cat and mouse puts Rankin's wife, Mary in great danger. If Rankin thinks Mary is a threat to him, he will kill her. Wilson enlists the aid of Mary's family and friends to watch out for her, but they can't watch all the time. As both Rankin and Mary come under increasing pressure from Rankin's pursuers, the chances increase that someone will make a mistake, leading to death.
Orson Welles is one of the best at playing this type of evil, creepy character, as he did in such classic films as “Touch of Evil” and “The Third Man.” Robinson, of course, also can play this same kind of character, as he did in “Key Largo.” Here, he plays the hero, but a ruthless one, who has no problem putting an innocent person in danger in order to catch the man he is hunting. Loretta Young is best known for playing sweet, innocent characters. She starts out that way in this movie, but develops and uncharacteristic vengeful edge later on. Her performance is surprising and powerful. The ending of the film is not really believable, but film noir often has these kinds of overly dramatic unbelievable elements. Cinematographer Russell Metty (“Touch of Evil”) uses the whole film noir bag of tricks, liberal use of shadows for mood, deep focus, shooting through, rather than around obscuring elements like tree branches, use of available light and limited lighting, extreme closeups to enhance drama and suspense. Not a perfect film by any means, but a powerful one and a good example of film noir from its post-war golden age. It is also worth a look simply because the great Orson Welles directed it so ably. This film rates a B.
The print transfer on the blu-ray disk (a standard DVD is included in this new Film Chest/Virgil Films combo-pack, released on Feb. 15, 2011) I reviewed looks clean for the most part, with a few brief rough spots probably caused by damaged prints used for the digital transfer and it has a Dolby Digital® 5.1 surround soundtrack, as well as Dolby 2.0 (the original soundtrack would have been monaural). There are Spanish subtitles, but no English subtitles for the hearing impaired. Extras include a side-by-side comparison of the original transfer (transferred from “original 35mm elements”) to the digital restoration and a movie trailer. A postcard-sized poster with movie art is included. This film is in black and white and the aspect ratio is 4:3 (full screen) which is the original aspect ratio of this film. I watched this on a home theater setup with a high-def projector, a six-foot-wide screen and 5.1 surround sound system. The surround and low frequency effects are minimal, as you would expect with this kind of digital remaster from an old mono soundtrack. The sound design of these old films did not envision modern sound systems. The music, dialog and ambient sounds are quite clear, however.
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