Background: Despite their privileged place in the film canon, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) underperformed at the box office, causing a rift between Orson Welles and RKO. The studio put the multi-talented enfant terrible on a tight leash for his third film as director: Welles, who beat out John Huston for the job, was barred from making changes to the script and had to pay for any cost overruns out of his own pocket. Although Welles feuded with producer Sam Spiegel during the production, he did – for the first and probably last time in his career – manage to complete the project on time and on budget. The Stranger, which received an Oscar nomination in the now-defunct category of “Best Story” (i.e. treatment), did better business than Welles’ previous two efforts and became his first financial success as director. His struggles with the system, however, were just beginning.
Plot Introduction: Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is a Nazi hunter, a UN special agent tasked with bringing Germany’s most notorious fugitives to justice. His current target is the infamous war criminal Franz Kindler, the man who orchestrated the Holocaust and the Third Reich’s scorched earth tactics. Tracking the Nazi to Harper, Connecticut, Wilson poses as an antiques dealer and gathers intelligence on the inhabitants of the seemingly idyllic small town. He realizes the Kindler has taken on the identity of Charles Rankin (Welles), a respected teacher at a prestigious local prep school. Wilson tries to convince Kindler/Rankin’s wife Mary (Loretta Young) of her husband’s true identity, but she refuses to believe that she could have married a Nazi. After the teacher’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, Mary becomes suspicious, causing the war criminal to plot her death. Kindler lays a trap at a local church bell tower but Wilson intervenes and finally ends Kindler’s reign of terror.
My Thoughts: As if there was any doubt, Russel Metty’s cinematography and Welles’ mastery of atmosphere show that the film noir was in full bloom by 1946: The Stranger teems with shadows. Metty – who would later win an Oscar for his work on Spartacus (1960) – shoots seemingly normal locations from just the right angle and with just the right low-key lighting to make them seem desolate and alien. The Stranger finds its horror in deserted high school gyms, family dinners, and small-town churches.
There’s something very Hitchcockian about the whole endeavor and I was immediately reminded of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), another film that creates suspense and black humor by placing a psychopath in Norman Rockwell small-town America. Like that Hitchcock flick, The Stranger has a lot of fun contrasting undeniable evil with the kind of quirkiness that one would expect from The Andy Griffith Show. In a comedic scene, Robinson’s g-man jokes that a local general store owner (a character right out of a sitcom) is a high roller because he gambles 25 cents on a game of checkers; the Nazi hunter is clearly amused by the banality that now surrounds him. Even Kindler himself has a mundane, unexplained obsession with clocks.
The basic premise – a genocidal Nazi disguised as a pillar of the community – remains a very solid idea for a film, a concept perfect for the mid-century noir style. While probably not an auteur vision like Citizen Kane, The Stranger proves that Welles could do what a director was asked to do in the studio era: oversee the translation of a good script into a good movie.
He also makes a major contribution as an actor. Welles plays Kindler/Rankin with a great deal of intensity, particularly in a scene where the German betrays his identity during a heated discussion of the Nazi mindset. He’s simply fantastic here, throwing out references to Germanic paganism, Wagner, and the Teutonic Knights in an extended, scenery-chewing monologue. Fortunately, this is as over-the top as Welles gets in The Stranger; he would reach much greater levels of hamminess later in his career. I’m also thankful that Welles opted for his normal accent instead of an affected German one, as I remember his Irish brogue in The Lady From Shanghai (1947) being one of that film’s weaker aspects.
Edward G. Robinson does a decent job as the protagonist, playing him in the same no-nonsense way as many of his other roles. While I totally buy him as a tough g-man, I didn’t get as much from his performance as I did from films like Scarlet Street (1945) or Key Largo (1948), or Soylent Green (1973) for that matter. The problem, I think, is the script: while we know that Wilson is a competent man of action, that’s about the only thing we know about him. We never even learn his first name. Because the script gives Robinson so little to work with, the character seems a bit generic, and the story would be stronger if they developed him more, gave him some relationship or quirk or personality trait that makes him seem like a real person. Mr. Wilson is really no match for a genocidal Nazi.
Kindler/Rankin’s wife Mary doesn’t fare much better. Although I know that she was a respected, Oscar-winning actress in her day, Loretta Young’s performance falls kind of flat for me. Of all the characters in The Stranger, she has the most drastic arc; it can’t be easy to learn that your spouse was behind the Holocaust. The script, unfortunately, tells us as much about her as it does about Edward G. Robinson’s character. The film’s minor characters provide a bit of local color and not much else.
Without a doubt the screenplay (allegedly featuring uncredited contributions by Welles and Huston) is light on character development. However, that is to be expected from a 95-minute thriller and, besides, The Stranger focuses on other things. While it has its flaws, the film also has four or five truly awesome, truly memorable scenes; I’ve already mentioned Welles’ Nazi monologue at the dinner table. Kindler’s meeting with a former comrade is another highlight. As the two men walk through the depths of a New England forest, Meinike (Konstanstin Shayne) tells Kindler about his religious conversion and asks him to confess his many, many sins. The Nazi then kills Meinike and buries his body in the woods, his coverrup of the murder eventually leading to his downfall.
Like all good thrillers, The Stranger ends with a suspenseful finale. Wilson and Kindler’s fatal confrontation atop the church bell tower is simply awesome, a set-piece worthy of Hitchcock. Welles and company taking one of the most enduring cinematic tropes – Roger Ebert calls it “the fallacy of the climbing villain” – and run with it, crafting something truly memorable. So much of this scene’s effectiveness comes from its sound design, from the clicking and whirring of the clock gears that ratchet up the tension. The editing (by Ernest J. Nims) is fantastic as well, providing an almost textbook example of how to cut a suspense scene. Welles’ over-the-top death – Franz Kindler is impaled on the sword of a statue and falls from the tower – is the perfect ending.
In a broader historical context, The Stranger is one of several 1946 thrillers about Nazi hunters; we’ve already scene a comedic Marx Brothers take on this genre. It’s not hard to see why, as the discovery of Axis Powers atrocities must have been on everyone’s mind in the postwar period. Of all these films, this one is probably the most thought-provoking because of its Nazi hiding in plain sight: members of the Third Reich really did live double lives as upstanding citizens.