Orson Welles, 1946
Starring: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young
Though often neglected alongside his masterpiece Citizen Kane (1942) or beloved film noir, Touch of Evil (1958), Orson Welles’ excellent, if understated thriller, The Stranger (1946), is a gripping look at post-war paranoia in small town America.
A man from the United Nations War Crimes Commission, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), follows Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a concentration camp commander allowed to leave prison in the hope that he will lead Wilson to Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), a leading member of the Nazi party who has avoided detection and fled to the U.S. Kindler has moved to a small town in Connecticut and changed his name to Charles Rankin. Meinike finds his house, but meets his lovely, young fiancée Mary (Loretta Young) instead. She points him in Rankin’s direction and they meet secretly in the woods. Unfortunately for Meinike, Rankin is more interested in protecting his identity and he kills Meinike and hides his body in the woods.
Charles and Mary are married, but strange events begin to occur around town, including the poisoning of Mary’s beloved dog and the discovery of Meinike’s body. Wilson figures out that Rankin is Kindler, but has little evidence and needs Mary’s testimony before he can make an arrest. Charles, meanwhile, has convinced Mary that he has to go on the run for a completely different reason and she swears her loyalty. When Wilson and her family show her concentration camp footage, her certainty begins to crack and she is pushed to the edge of hysteria. Will Charles kill her before she faces the truth?
Though Welles considered it one of his worst films, mostly a work for hire piece, The Stranger was a box office success and was nominated for an Academy Award for the script. It also convinced the studio that he could be a team player after his first two sprawling, expensive works, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Despite Hollywood interference in terms of script and editing, Welles’ directing is unmistakable and stylish with interesting framing, long shots, and detailed sets from designer Perry Ferguson. Welles is great at creating atmosphere and suspense, which he successfully maintains throughout the film.
The script was written by Victor Trivas (Where the Sidewalk Ends) and reworked by Anthony Veiller (The Killers), Welles himself, and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon). There are similarities between The Stranger and other films from the period, including Welles’ interest in small town American in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the clock references, secret identities, and thriller tone of The Third Man (1949), and the evil underbelly of small town American from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Though many other thrillers would go on to address the problem of Nazism, Welles’ Rankin/Kindler is an attractive, charismatic, and intelligent portrait of human evil. This was also the first film released after WWII to show real footage from concentration camps, especially powerful at a time when the world was struggling to believe the camps existed at all. Fascism was a major concern for Welles and was convinced it would find ways to rear its ugly head even after the war was over.
Welles is excellent as the charismatic Rankin, a character that represents the generalized human evil Hitchcock portrayed in Shadow of a Doubt, but also gives that evil a name: Nazism. His speeches about fascism are truly chilling, but he is compelling enough that we follow him along until the inevitable conclusion. Edward G. Robinson is likable as the investigator in a role similar to the character he played in Double Indemnity, but Welles far overshadows him. It would have been interesting to see Welles’ original choice for the role, Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane). Loretta Young (The Accused) is decent as Rankin’s wife driven to the edge of hysteria and essentially provides the emotional core of the film. The supporting cast is rounded out by a number of memorable side characters: Martha Wentworth (Daughter of Dr. Jekyll), Billy House (Bedlam), Konstantin Shayne (Vertigo) , and Richard Long (House on Haunted Hill) as Mary’s earnest brother.
Though this isn’t technically a noir film, it has been sometimes labelled as such because of its beautiful noir-like visuals from cinematographer Russell Metty (Touch of Evil), which look phenomenal here. The other noir tropes -- a man on the run, secret identities and dark secrets, a detective, a final pursuit -- are shaped by Welles into something totally his own. Of course, Citizen Kane is one of the forerunners of noir style and the major plot point there, the quest to discover a man's true identity, is reshaped here.
In addition to the great transfer, the extras make this release well worth picking up. There is an informative commentary track from film historian, writer, and filmmaker Brett Wood that explores the making of the film and how the end result differed from Welles’ original vision. Also included is Death Mills, a roughly 20 minute short film from Billy Wilder made up of concentration camp footage. A major bonus is that four of Welles’ radio broadcasts were included: “Alameda,” “War Workers,” and “Brazil” from 1942 and “Bikini Atomic Test” from 1946, totaling about 90 minutes. There is also an image gallery and the original trailer for The Stranger.
Though many may consider The Stranger to be one of Welles’ more average and accessible works, I have to say that even his most mediocre films that suffer from Hollywood meddling are more interesting than the best works of many other directors from the period. The Stranger is a compelling post-war thriller and comes highly recommended. The Kino Blu-ray is a must-have for Welles fans.