Richard Schickel

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768

Iconfess that I approached The Stranger with considerable trepidation. Albert Camus's novel, despite the vigor of its deceptively simple style, despite the marvelous clarity of its philosophy and psychology, seemed impossibly difficult to translate to the screen. (p. 163)

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How wrong I was. Director Luchino Visconti, a team of screenwriters and, most especially, Marcello Mastroianni as Meursault have made from The Stranger a film that can only be described as excellent—thoughtful, moving and faithful. Above all, faithful, for theirs is the kind of modest, self-effacing craftsmanship that serves rather than exploits its basic material. Eschewing the temptation to overcinematize the story, they have concentrated with commendable discipline on allowing the grave voice of Albert Camus to speak to us in a medium that was not his own. It comes through firm and clear, and true. Since this was a voice that both summed up and shaped the sensibility of at least two postwar generations, it is well worth the close attention this film forces us to pay. (pp. 163-64)

Meursault is doomed by his lack of repentance and by a string of witnesses who testify that his indifference to death is only an extension of his indifference to the customary standards by which we judge a man's fitness to live in civilization. To decent right-thinking people he is a moral monster who must be condemned—if not for his crime, then for his thoughts.

But of course he is not a monster. He is merely a man in rebellion against the illusions which help the rest of us sustain our sanity, a man who has pressed rationalism to its outermost limits and is content to live on the brink of the darkest abyss, the place where even saints must fear to tread and which is, indeed, the take-off point for their sundry leaps of faith. Which makes him, perversely, ironically, a kind of tragic hero.

The artistic challenge such a figure presents is formidable. He is the embodiment not of observed human characteristics, as most fictional constructs are, but of a pure idea, the nature of which is such that our every instinct begs us to reject it. The problem is to humanize him so that we can open ourselves emotionally—not just intellectually—to his mind and his tragedy. I have never been certain that Camus himself solved this problem completely, especially for those who were not generally predisposed to his view of existence. The idea he represented clung unshakably to the mind, but Meursault the man had a way of slipping out of the reader's grasp.

The movie rectifies this defect. Meursault and his world are made palpable on film in a way they never were—for me, at least—on the page. This is not a matter of director or star adding a lot of helpful hints designed to cue our responses and make sure we get the point. It is, rather, an almost subliminal thing—the flicker of an expression in Mastroianni's face, the camera's eye falling briefly on a detail which helps concretize a story that is by its nature always in danger of becoming mythically abstract.

When, at the end, priest and Stranger meet in the condemned cell to discuss ultimate meanings, this attention to detail pays off. What seemed mainly an ideological duel in the novel here becomes a passionate struggle for the soul of an unpleasantly honest and courageous man we have come to care deeply about—not because we agree with him (we may or may not) but because we love him. He has already chosen death in preference to the conventional wisdom. Now he chooses damnation—if, indeed, there is a heaven. And this is a victory we can savor even if we believe he is wrong.

The Stranger is a muted, careful, even slow film that achieves its victory through an austere honesty that matches that of its hero. It is not a movie to engage casually and it may not please those for whom movies are primarily exercises in style or fashionable form. It does, however, place before us one of the key philosophical and artistic expressions of our time, and in illuminating it anew it inevitably illuminates the basic issues with which all of us must sooner or later grapple. It is, therefore, a film that any serious person must regard as inescapable. (pp. 164-66)

Richard Schickel, "'The Stranger'" (originally published in Life, February 2, 1968), in his Second Sight: Notes on Some Movies 1965–1970 (copyright © 1972 by, Richard Schickel; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation), Simon & Schuster, 1972, pp. 163-67.

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