The Stranger is often referred to as Orson Welles’s least personal effort behind the camera. A solid piece of postwar genre work about a Nazi hiding in bucolic small-town America, The Stranger is not unique enough to stand out from the crowd, especially not in the manner of Welles’s greatest masterpieces. As critic James Agree wrote about it in The Nation when it was first released, “There is nothing in the picture that even appears to be ‘important’ or ‘new,’ but there is nothing pretentious or arty either ...” For some, The Stranger was a betrayal of Welles’s great filmmaking prowess; for others (Agee included), it was the work of an overpraised auteur finally settling down into some semblance of rational professionalism.
The Stranger was Welles’s third feature film after the controversial (but now coveted) Citizen Kane (1941), which media magnate William Randolph Hearst tried to repress and was an enormous flop at the box office, and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which was taken from him by the executives at RKO after disastrous prescreenings and (in Welles’s words) “edited with a lawn mower” from 131 minutes to 88 minutes. Welles made the The Stranger as proof that he could work within the Hollywood studio system, and the result is a competent, engaging thriller that bears little of the reckless brilliance that characterized Welles, the “enfant terrible of American cinema,” as Andrew Sarris called him.
The story takes place in the fictional town of Harper, Connecticut, where Welles plays Charles Rankin, a teacher at the local boys’ prep school. In actuality, he is Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal who ingratiates himself into American society by marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the innocent daughter of a Supreme Court justice (Philip Merivale). Welles plays Rankin with thinly disguised malevolence, a man so thoroughly ingrained with the myth of Aryan supremacy that he lets slip at dinner that Karl Marx wasn’t a German because he was a Jew and nervously scribbles a swastika on a notepad while talking on the phone. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller (working from a story by Victor Trivas, adapted by Trivas and Decla Dunning) ensures that Rankin is the vilest of the Nazis by making him the anonymous mastermind behind Germany’s attempts at genocide. In effect, Rankin is positioned as not just a willing participant in the Holocaust, but its primary cause. He bears the full weight of historical atrocity.
Following close on Rankin’s heels is Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a dogged member of the Allied Commission for the Punishment of War Criminals. Wilson manages to track Rankin down in Harper, but because there are no pictures of Franz Kindler, he must use other tactics to ensure that Rankin is indeed the Nazi in hiding. This involves Mary’s younger brother, Noah (Richard Long), and eventually Mary herself, whose greatest flaw turns out to be her unwavering faith in her new husband. When she is confronted with the truth about her him, she is internally torn, which Wilson explains with the protracted Freudian terminology that was all the rage at that time.
Despite its generally impersonal nature, The Stranger does contain several notable sequences that hint at Welles’s involvement, including numerous complex crane and tracking shots that allow extensive action to unfold in a single shot. Cinematographer Russell Metty (who went on to win an Oscar in 1961 for his work on Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus) captures the innocence of Harper in bright shades of gray, suggesting visually how its very purity provides the perfect hiding place for Welles’s insidious Nazi. However, the film ensures us that it is not all sweetness, as the townspeople come disturbingly close to turning into a lynch mob of sorts once Rankin is unmasked. The narrative poses their mob activity as good ol’ fashioned American community spirit, but the visuals paint a different picture, one in which the unmistakable, expressionist darkness of film noir invades to great effect and Rankin gets his just desserts in notably gruesome and melodramatic fashion.
Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Stranger is most disturbing in its implications about the dangers of feeling safe in a word of surfaces, something that would have rung with particular clarity at the end of World War II. At one point, Mary tells Rankin that he doesn’t need to walk her home “because there’s nothing to fear in Harper.” Of course, as the film makes clear, there is plenty to be afraid of, most of all in a place like Harper, where the charm and ease of small-town life can hide the worst of human evil.
Copyright ©2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Olive Films / 20th Century Fox / MGM
Overall Rating: (3)
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