Plot: What’s it about?
In The Stranger, a small town is invaded by a Nazi war criminal who not only wants to reside there, but also take on a most important position. His name is Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) and he has become a schoolteacher, although no one knows the truth about his past. He has to guard that information with extreme care, as he would be in serious danger if found out and perhaps even killed by some of the locals. After he enters his new town, he becomes Charles Rankin and tries to fit into the area as well as possible. At the same time, his trail is followed by Nazi hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) and whatever it takes, he plans to bring Kindler to justice. But Kindler is very comfortable in his new persona, so it will take a lot to crack the case open, though if anyone can do it, it would have to be Wilson. In The Trial, we watch as Joseph K. (Anthony Perkins) finds himself on trial for a crime he is not informed of and in truth, information about his case is non existent, at least as far as his ears are concerned. He tries to delve into any possible chance to find out the truth, but it seems to be impossible, no matter what he attempts. Can Joseph K. even discover what charges he faces, or will he end up convicted and punished for something he is unaware of?
As I happen to like both of these pictures, I am quite pleased to have them as part of my collection, to be sure. As you should know, both films were directed by Orson Welles and while not his finest work, they are terrific movies that cinema fans shouldn’t miss. I think The Stranger is tremendous and has some excellent performances, especially from Edward G. Robinson (Double Indemnity, Key Largo), Loretta Young (The Bishop’s Wife, The Farmer’s Daughter), and Welles himself. The story is well crafted and unfolds at a brisk, but never rushed pace and suspense abounds, right from the start. The Trial is also a superb motion picture, though it might not mesh well with all audiences, to say the least. It is loaded with intense, masterful visuals and really manages to get inside your head, which is not always a good thing in this case. Welles provides some real magic behind the camera here, with some dead on direction in almost all scenes. Anthony Perkins (Psycho, The Black Hole) gives a wonderful lead performance, in what had to be a difficult role to bring to the screen. In short, both of these movies hold a stable place in cinema history and for fans of Welles or film in general, both should be on the “do not miss” lists.
This two disc package from FocusFilm contains both The Stranger and The Trail, as well as Hearts of Age and some supplements. As such, it makes a tempting release because you can nab so much content in one fell swoop, which makes even more sense when you consider the reasonably low price involved. It is more than obvious that FocusFilm has taken care to bring these selections to DVD in this form, as the films have been restored, remastered, and layered with all sorts of bonus materials. I admit the Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes were unneeded, but the restoration work is admirable and the extras are most welcome, without a doubt. The films don’t look pristine however, as the materials have not aged well, but at least some effort was put into improving the visual quality, so I won’t complain much there. As both movies are very worthwhile and should be viewed by all those interested in film, I recommend this release since it has both, plus a nice selection of supplements to round out the set. The price is well within reason and in line with the asking rate of some bare bones discs, so if you’re interested, don’t hesitate on this one.
Video: How does it look?
The Stranger is presented in a full frame transfer, as intended. The image looks acceptable and the print is very clean, but this comes at the expense of sharpness. Of course, this film has always looked soft on home video, but this seems perhaps even softer than usual, though not by a large margin. I suppose the small decrease is sharpness is worth it for a much cleaner however, or at least it is if you ask me. The contrast is stable and never gets too dark, nor does it ever overexpose detail levels. I do wish this film could look better, but all things considered, I think this restored transfer is quite acceptable.
The Trial is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen transfer, which is not enhanced for widescreen televisions. The box lists this as 1.85:1, but it looks closer to 1.66:1 and as that is the intended aspect ratio, I think that’s the case. The image here is much like on The Stranger, where softness is more present than I’d like, but the print looks cleaner than expected. It is a tradeoff to be sure, but one that I think is worthwhile. I do wish FocusFilm had given this an anamorphic treatment however, as that could have improved the visuals even more. Even so, this is a solid, but flawed presentation and for those interested, it should be more than adequate.
Audio: How does it sound?
Both films feature new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mixes, but sadly, the original mono versions are not included here. The audio is not bad by any means, but these movies simply don’t need the remix treatment, the mono options would have most welcome. The surround use is not too gimmicky, but you can tell the mixes aren’t the originals, without a doubt. I heard no serious problems with either film, but I am still unsure why these new mixes were minted, especially without including the original soundtracks. I am knocking this one half a point for the obvious oversight, but in the end, both mixes are acceptable and better than expected.
Supplements: What are the extras?
This set includes audio commentaries on both films from film critic Jeffrey Lyons, who shares his thoughts & some history on the pictures. Lyons is an energetic speaker and never slows down much, so there’s lots to be gleaned from his sessions. I do think some might be annoyed by his approach at times, but I found both tracks to be informative & worthwhile. Next is a twenty minute featurette that sheds some light on how both films were made, as well as a peek at the restoration process used for this release. Hearts of Age was Welles’ first film and it is silent, though Lyons’ comments are forced over the duration. I simply muted the television to hear the intended silence, but I think a silent option should have been included. This set also includes some still photographs, as well as theatrical trailers for both movies.