It is now more than a quarter of a century since Albert Camus wrote The Stranger, perhaps still the best modern novel of alienation and despair. Though Camus steadfastly refused to allow it, or any of his other books, to be made into a movie, his widow finally sold the film rights to Italian Producer Dino De Laurentiis on condition that the director be Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, Rocco and His Brothers).
Visconti has tackled his responsibility with the same fanatical concern for factual accuracy that Richard Brooks demonstrated in making In Cold Blood (TIME, Dec. 22). He had authorities in Algiers rip up a street to lay down trolley tracks that had been there during the period of the story (1938-39), and even ordered a reprinting of cigarette packages to match those sold at the time. Visconti's film of The Stranger follows the action of the novel with hardly a comma missingand therein lies both its strength and its weakness.
The camera first catches the clerk Meursault (Marcello Mastroianni) on a bus ride to the old people's home where his mother has died. Meticulously, it builds up the minutiae of the life of this moderately attractive, affably uncommitted manworking, making love to his girl friend (Anna Karina), watching the street life of Algiers.
Every frame is dominated by the dizzying North African heat; with blinding sunlight and sweat-drenched bodies, Visconti comes close to prostrating his audience as he builds Meursault's unexpected, meaningless murder of an Arab on the beach. It is stifling, too, in the courtroom where Meursault is condemned, as much for his disengagement from society's proprieties and his refusal to pretend pieties he does not feel as for the crime itself.
Until then, The Stranger is an exceptionally taut, abrasive film. But with Meursault awaiting the guillotine, the action of the bookand the movie-moves inside his mind. The camera is left staring at Mastroianni while his voice on the sound track soliloquizes on life, death and the meaninglessness of it all. The sequence is faithful to what Camus wrote, but it is a shame that Visconti could not have found a more cinematic way of getting it across in a film whose power otherwise almost matches the book that inspired it.