Luchino Visconti

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Stanley Kauffmann

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The sun—the Algerian sun—was an important part of Albert Camus's early being…. And it is integral to his first novel, The Stranger: the crucial moment of murder occurs when Meursault is in the grip of that same Algerian sun. Luchino Visconti has understood this essential thematic element perfectly. In his color film of The Stranger, apparently shot on location, Visconti has aimed to make the sun a benefaction, an oppression, an ambience. (p. 46)

This visual realization of the atmosphere is only the beginning of the film's achievements. Visconti has got a faithful screenplay…. However, to say that the script is faithful to Camus is both to praise it and to delimit it. It does the most, dramatically and cinematically, that is possible with the book, without any substantive alteration (which would have been intolerable), yet its fidelity gives it the same level dramatic plane as that of films about Jesus. Such films … always rise to a plateau and stay on it because there is no hero. A hero must have some illusions and must struggle as a result of them. Jesus is not deceived and will not struggle. So with Meursault.

This gives Visconti's film, like Camus's novel, a quality of observation and patience. The drama is not overt; it is internal, the inevitable abrasion between the protagonist's inner state and the world's protocol. But the film is at a disadvantage in comparison with the novel because of one central matter of technique: Camus evokes a pervasive somnambulistic quality by putting a good deal of Meursault's dialogue into indirect discourse. One example among dozens:

      "Why," [the chaplain] asked, "don't you let
      me come to see you?"
      I explained that I didn't believe in God.
      "Are you really so sure of that?"
      I said I saw no point in troubling my head
      about the matter; whether I believed or
      didn't was, to my mind, a question of little

This technique is impossible in film. If Meursault's indirect answers were put on the soundtrack as narration, we would see his lips move as he replied. Or even if his face were not shown, the flip-flop from the chaplain's direct speech to Meursault's narrated replies would have the opposite of the intended effect. It would destroy the texture of the scene, whereas, in the novel, the device creates texture—suspended, dreamlike, life like.

But facing the book's difficulties and intent on rendering it authentically, Visconti has made a beautiful, discreet, perceptive film of this epochal work of the twentieth-century Western world. Pictures, in the specific sense, have never been difficult for him; on the contrary, he has tended to indulge himself by slapping pictures all over our eyeballs in films like The Leopard and Sandra. Here he has used his pictorial sense, rather than spewed it. There are plenty of extraordinary things to look at: the skylighted air of the mortuary in an old folks' home, the Algerian streets and rooms (with the smell almost visible), the sensual blending of sea and sun. And when Meursault is in his cell, Visconti (with [cinematographer] Rotunno) increases the isolation by increasingly isolating the prisoner's countenance until only his face is embodied out of the dark. But never is the picture merely pretty. Visconti was obviously deeply committed to Camus, and all his previously obtrusive virtuosity is here totally at Camus's service. (pp. 46-8)

Stanley Kauffmann, "'The Stranger'" (originally published in The New Republic, January 13, 1968, Vol. 158, No. 2), in his Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (copyright © 1968, 1969, 1970 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 46-8.

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