The Stranger
, , ,
95 min.
Release Date
The Stranger

Though not his best film, Orson Welles’ The Stranger proved the director, for the first and only time in his career, a financial success. Despite initial critical aversion, the movie has grown in prestige over the years, if only for its sheer entertainment value. And yet, it certainly does not spar with traditionalize storytelling formula as his previous films Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons do, and it avoids Welles’ brilliant structure on later noir pictures like The Lady from Shanghai or Touch of Evil. Perhaps the film’s success was just good timing for 1946 audiences. Producer Sam Spiegel, who at the time was prominently a rookie in Hollywood, pushed for Anthony Veiller’s script for The Stranger, based on a story by Victor Trivas, to be financed by International Pictures and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures (the script would eventually be doctored by John Huston). Welles was hired as both director and the film’s villain, but he had little-to-no input on the script. Made for little more than $1 million, it garnered upwards of $3 million at theaters in its initial release.

The story centers on Franz Kindler (Welles), a Nazi organizer who, fleeing fallen Nazi Germany just after WWII, settles down in a quiet New England town. Under the false name Professor Charles Rankin, Kindler has ostensibly infiltrated Everytown, USA, where he intends to one day restore power to Nazi regimes. War Crimes Investigator Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) knows Rankin is in hiding, so he allows Nazi prisoner Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) to escape, leading a trail to Kindler. Robinson gives his Wilson a humorous quaintness, identifying completely with the small town’s citizens; he’s right at home playing checkers over a cup of coffee with the owner of the town’s do-it-yourself drug store. Meinike searches through the political criminal underground until he discovers Kindler’s locale, only to discover Kindler is now Rankin, safe in his pseudonym. Kindler is even set to wed Mary (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice. Wilson eventually tries to convince the blindly faithful Mary that her new husband is a Nazi.

Welles plays Kindler as suspiciously elegant, lending to the idea that anyone anywhere could be the enemy—that incognito Nazis could penetrate even the least significant parts of postwar America. The idea was to destroy the illusion of safety for the average American citizen, something Alfred Hitchcock did successfully three years prior in Shadow of a Doubt. That film brought Joseph Cotten’s Charlie to Santa Rosa, California; the much-loved uncle of a perfect family, Charlie would soon reveal himself as “The Merry Widow Murderer”, bringing East Coast criminality to a perfect little piece of West Coast suburbia. It’s been debated by several film historians that Veiller’s script for The Stranger was inspired in part by Hitchcock’s film, which Hitchcock considered his personal favorite of his own works.

The horrors of WWII were being uncovered at the time, and footage of concentration camps were suddenly showing up on newsreels. Welles begins his film with such images, though he would claim in his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich that he doesn’t approve of exploitation of such atrocities for entertainment. (He does add that concentration camp imagery serves to remind people of the horrible truth, however.) The Stranger was the first film to use such footage in support of a fictional story. Hollywood lore tells us Welles shot a sequence where Meineke’s search for Kindler was elongated by around twenty minutes, possibly resembling something as surreal as any moment in Welles’ twisting adventure Mr. Arkadin. This is yet another horrible tale from Welles’ unfortunate production history, as these twenty minutes of footage were cut by Spiegel and destroyed. Spiegel believed them to off-center the plot’s centralized location in New England; Welles claimed those twenty-or-so minutes were, in his opinion, the most interesting in the film (possibly since they were conceived and written by Welles himself). Producer-interference caused a number of Welles’ historic troubled productions; in fact, the only Welles film to hit theaters tamper-free was Citizen Kane—often considered the greatest film of all time.

In late interviews, Welles would say The Stranger was his least favorite of his own pictures, possibly because he had virtually nothing to do with its screen story. David Thompson, author of Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, claims that by 1946 Welles had become “bored and artsy” when it came to filmmaking, thus resulting in The Stranger’s un-phenomenal quality of storytelling. I can’t help but disagree with Thompson’s assessment, having recently revisited the film on MGM’s new DVD. While it might not have Welles’ typically naturalistic dialogue or rampant and reflective socio-historical undertones, it does offer crowd-pleasing suspense. After all, it entertained 1940s audiences enough to turn a profit. According to Welles, he was often criticized for the film’s “comic-strip” finale. It ends where a typical thriller might, with the bad guy getting his due and the hero getting his man. But like Hitchcock, even one of Welles’ mediocre films was better than The Best by another filmmaker. Welles was so astonishingly talented that when placing The Stranger next to his more celebrated work, it’s eclipsed. On its own, however, without taking Welles’ oeuvre into consideration, The Stranger is a fine thriller capable of entertaining any audience.

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