The Stranger is one of the least revered films by Orson Welles, if not the least revered, but it actually has a lot going for it and it’s a surprise that it has been so unloved by critics for the past 60 years. Famously, Welles didn’t like it, but interestingly it’s the only film he made that was a commercial success at the box office upon release. That Citizen Kane, so cherished by the critical elite? Well the hoi polloi voted with their feet and gave it the swerve. Touch Of Evil, with its incredible, oft-discussed opening scene? No thanks Orson, said the masses. The Magnificent Ambersons? Two very firm thumbs down from an unimpressed Joe Q. Public.
Money isn’t everything, of course, but it certainly mattered in the late 1940s when your name was mud in Hollywood. Welles hadn’t directed a film for four years. He had struggled to convince studios that he could deliver a film within budget and on time, and many wouldn’t touch him after The Magnificent Ambersons only recouped around a third of its $1,000,000 budget. When he came to The Stranger two of the leads had been cast and the story had been written. Wells would be allowed to make it by International Studios, but only if he agreed to three conditions: 1) the script would be edited by Ernest Nims; 2) changes could not be made to the script once production began; and most crucially 3) If the film went over budget, Welles would pay the studio out of his own pocket.
Clearly something about The Stranger struck a chord with post-war cinemagoers. It was certainly topical, in that the plot concerns a Nazi war criminal in hiding in a small American town, even if it is totally ridiculous. (Of all the countries in all the world you had to go and hide out in that one? Really?) But perhaps its charm comes from just how ‘normal’ it is: it’s a straightforward drama that presumably didn’t alienate those looking for a less cerebral experience, in a way that his earlier films did.
Welles stars as Professor Charles Rankin, also known as Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal who was directly involved in the holocaust and is now on the run from the authorities as the post-war justice is meted out. He has taken on a new identity and moved to a small town, where he is working in a prep school and about to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of Supreme Court Justice Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale).
Chasing down the elusive Kindler is United Nations War Crimes Commission Detective Mr Wilson, played with typical down-to-earth charm by Edward G. Robinson. At the start of the film Wilson frees an old associate of Kindler’s by the name of Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) in the hope that he will lead them to Kindler. Sure enough, he does exactly that, heading straight for the USA and eventually knocking on Charles and Loretta’s door several hours before they are about to tie the knot. The rest of the film is a battle of wits between Rankin/Kindler and Wilson, and a fairly conventional game of cat-and-mouse; Wilson must unmask Kindler, but the German is smart and determined to stay one step ahead.
The opening sequence, which shows Meinike as he is trailed through a variety of exotic locations on his way to the USA, is a real treat which the rest of the film fails to live up to. Welles pulls out all the stops, with the same bold array of crane shots, unusual low and high camera angles and chiaroscuro that was so fresh and new when used in Citizen Kane, his debut film. In one great scene Meinike is purchasing a new false passport and must have his picture taken, and he appears reflected in the camera’s lens while much of the screen is shrouded in darkness. There’s a real sense of zip to these early scenes which disappears when Welles leaves the directors chair and appears in front o the camera.
Meinike’s journey through the shadows leads to a small town, which is deliberately plain in order to create a stark contrast, and indeed a sense that this could well be happening just down the road from whatever movie theatre people happened to be in at the time. Wilson ingratiates himself with the local populace, playing draughts (that’s ‘checkers’ to all American readers, or ‘dama’ if you’re Turkish, and shashki if you’re Russian; this is a broad church) with local chemist Mr Potter (Billy House) and getting to know the Longstreets while posing as an antique dealer, keeping his own true identity hidden while he gathers information and evidence.
Though the plot is fairly straightforward, there are some nice touches here and there, particularly in terms of the ending, which makes great use of the town’s clocktower. Welles plays the scheming Kindler with a kind of bug-eyed intensity, and he has some good scenes with Robinson, the two often found suspiciously eyeing each other up from opposite sides of a room or table.
Initially Welles wanted to cast his friend Agnes Moorehead in the role of the investigator, but producer Sam Spiegel (listed here as S. P. Eagle) refused, and opted to cast Robinson, thereby ensuring the role stayed male. A female lead would have been interesting, and way ahead of its time in terms of this kind of role, but it appeared to be too early for the studio and Spiegel. It’s interesting to consider what would have happened if Welles had got his way. He might have made a better film, but it’s also possible the film might have tanked as a result, and Welles may not have found work as easy to come by in the future.
The only negative points are that Welles fails to keep up the standards achieved in the visually-strong opening, and that the Mary Longstreet character is a little by-the-numbers. It’s irritating to watch a character that is seemingly well-educated and intelligent refusing to acknowledge the crimes of her husband having been presented with insurmountable evidence, but that’s the get out clause true love gives you, I guess.
Ultimately, while it’s a fairly straightforward thriller in terms of the plot, there is enough of Welles’ creative genius on show here to make it stand out from the pack. Welles had become fascinated by fascism, and the way he incorporates newsreel footage of concentration camps is very interesting, as is a long monologue his character delivers about the future of the Nazi party and of Germany (you suspect that he did manage to make a change or two to the script, after all). With good central performances and tight pace that doesn’t sag or stutter, it’s a rewarding film to watch, and there’s certainly no reason why it shouldn’t be held up with other Welles films as an important picture in 20th Century cinema. In a way, it has been neglected because it isn’t his first film, but that’s not a good enough reason for it to remain overlooked.
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Anthony Veiller, Decla Dunning, John Huston, Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson
Running Time: 93 Minutes