Monday, January 2, 2017

Short Take: The Stranger

The Stranger (1967), director Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ landmark 1942 novel, is well-produced, faithful to its source, and quite uneven. Marcello Mastroianni plays Meursault, the French-descended Algerian who, during a seaside getaway, kills a man who’s been stalking a friend. The film’s first half, for all the attention to detail, is slackly presented. Visconti seeks to evoke an atmosphere of ennui, but the narrative just feels unshaped and meandering. Unlike Camus, the film doesn’t build any dynamic between Meursault’s go-along-to-get-along indifference and the more engaged attitudes of the other characters. Visconti also doesn’t use the Algerian locations very effectively. (The film repeatedly emphasizes the sweat-inducing heat, but that’s about the only memorable use of the setting.) The second half is much better. The picture does a fine job of dramatizing the blackly farcical absurdity of Meursault’s trial, which is less about the killing than condemning him for showing insufficient grief at his mother’s death. The climactic dialogue with the priest, when Meursault’s angry, defiant nihilism comes to the fore, is just about perfectly played. But Mastroianni, as impressive as he is in that final scene, is probably a key reason the film doesn’t work as well as it could. He plays Meursault’s laconism as passivity, and his sedate manner undercuts the material’s tension. An actor with a more tightly wound presence, such as Alain Delon (reportedly Visconti’s first choice) or Clint Eastwood (fresh off his pictures with Sergio Leone), would have been preferable. The film’s standout player is Anna Karina, who plays Meursault’s girlfriend Marie. Her happy-go-lucky sexiness is the first half’s one engaging element. In her later scenes, such as the prison visit (extremely well-staged by Visconti) and Marie’s testimony at the trial, Karina is nothing less than heartbreaking. After Karina, Georges Wilson is the best of the supporting players: his turn as the prosecutor is smarminess personified. The screenplay is credited to Visconti, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Georges Conchon, and Emmanuel Robles. Giuseppe Rotunno was the cinematographer. Piero Piccioni provided the discord-heavy score.

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