Orson Welles is one of the preeminent directors worldwide, and yet the troubled production histories of his film output are just as tremendous. His 1946 thriller, The Stranger was plagued with cuts and missing footage which many feel contributed to Welles’ listing this as his least favorite picture. It is thrilling and fervent in its patriotism, but the focus in tone and point-of-view smothers the picture from patriotic thriller to staid domestic drama. A precursor to superior films by Alfred Hitchcock, The Stranger is a spellbinding flick, but suffers from lost opportunities contributed to by studio interference.
An investigator from the War Crimes Commission, generically dubbed Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is tasked with finding infamous escaped Nazi, Franz Kinder. The mystery ends in a tiny hamlet in Connecticut where the Nazi has rebranded himself as Professor Charles Rankin (Welles). Rankin has done well for himself in his short time in town, and even secured himself a bride, judge’s daughter Mary (Loretta Young). Rankin’s idle is threatened, though, when Mr. Wilson enters the town.
The first hour of The Stranger is a thrilling, spiraling cat and mouse game between Wilson and Rankin, with each hoping to evade the other through trickery and lies. The title of the movie implicates both sets of men: Rankin is the metaphorical stranger; the dark, shadowy man who you never truly know. Whereas Wilson is the literal stranger who wanders into town seeking answers. Welles’ direction has you believing these two are tied by heavenly string through shot placement; a scene of Welles kicking a dog jumps to Robinson sitting up in bed with the realization Welles is the Nazi. Apparently, the kick was a celestial lightbulb going off. The themes within the movie are prominently reused in other films of the era, predominately focusing on small-town havens holding dark secrets. People in these small-towns were being told to fear strangers, and that the Nazi threat could be closer than expected. Ultimately, the plot is servicable and enjoyable, but never as complex as future Welles films noir.
Welles continues to be an innovator with cinematography and shot composition. He employs various techniques involving mirroring that are beautiful, particularly one of Meinike’s (Konstantin Shayne) reflection in the lens of a passport camera. There aren’t any grandiose set pieces or camera tricks on par with Citizen Kane, nor should you expect there to be. The movie isn’t a grandiose masterpiece, but meant to connect with honest Americans. It also lacks any huge film noir touches outside of lighting. The documentary style wouldn’t work with the film’s cautionary tale aspects. The only element proving bothersome is if you’ve watched other movies about Nazis, or films noir in the past. Certain elements feel copied from Notorious or Suspicion, and while Welles provides enough to keep this from feeling imitative, you’ll be able to deduce the plot’s trajectory.
The characters are what keep the work on an even keel, and Edward G. Robinson and Welles are fantastic. Welles originally waned a female agent (preferably played by Agnes Moorehead), but the studio foisted Robinson on him. Robinson worked out for the best because he is the perfect G-man. Wilson is a character bursting with dogged determinism and Robinson makes up in tenacity what he lacks in stature and intimidation. Welles takes a character pulled off better in The Lady From Shanghai, but gives off the required menace as Rankin/Kinder. The weak link in the trio is Loretta Young. I’ve always found Loretta Young’s holier than thou character’s lifeless and off-putting; that’s not a slight against her as an actress, but more in illustrating her limited persona. Young gets a few moments to break down the barrier of her character, especially when she obsessively wants to prove Wilson wrong about Rankin. The problem is the movie loses steam when Wilson and Mary’s family become compelled to have her realize Rankin is a Nazi. Can we not arrest him without it? It’s mentioned there are no photos of Kinder to prove his identity, but the premise hinges on the blind belief Kinder will reveal himself to his wife. This becomes contradictory once Rankin carelessly tells Mary he’s going to murder her. Welles hasn’t grasped how to handle relationships here, and the third act drags out to its inevitable conclusion which feels very much like an “Aw, shucks” type ending.
Kino’s DVD is great, barring a few noticeable hisses on the audio. The movie has been in the public domain for years, and thankfully care is put into this transfer. The cleaned up picture helps you to notice the poor dubbing Welles employed. At several points you see the actors smiling, clearly staying silent, and yet dialogue is coming out. The DVD has some great bonus content as well to present a money well spent experience. I especially appreciated the 20-minute film about the Nazi death camps directed by Billy Wilder. It’s one thing to watch snippets within the movie, but it’s another to watch a sobering exploration of the camps, viewing the gas chambers and destroyed people who have lost all hope. It should be required viewing for its historical preservation. Additionally, there’s commentary by Brent Wood which is good, focusing on the acting, Welles directorial style, and the set-pieces. The disc also includes an image gallery and the trailer.
The Stranger is an entertaining film noir prototype with two dynamic leading men. The plot becomes bogged down too much in romance, and Loretta Young remains constrained in stalwart matron roles, but the movie is a thriller high-wire act with Welles continuing to present insight and political commentary with a dynamite plot.
The Stranger hits Blu-ray and DVD October 15th
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.