“The Stranger” - Orson Welles (1946)

After the box-office failures of his first two films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Orson Welles was forced to operate within the confines of studio-imposed restrictions in order to secure Hollywood’s funding for his third film, The Stranger (1946).  Welles proceeded this time to crank out a more conventional film noir, completing the work on time and under budget and thereby ensuring that the film enjoyed a modest profit.  In fact the film went on to receive a US Oscar nomination for Best Story, although I would say that the basically absurd screenplay by Anthony Veiller is the worst element of the film.  What does make the film distinctive are the various touches of Wellesian expressionism in the telling of the tale. In particular, there are a number of intricate crane and tracking shots that lure the viewer into the sinuousness of the narrative.  In addition, Welles employs a liberal dosage of low-angle and high-angle shots that emphasize the expressionistic atmosphere of various dramatic situations.

The film’s story concerns a notorious Nazi war criminal’s attempts to avoid capture by hiding himself in anonymity in a small American town.  He is tracked to this town by a relentless US federal agent, and the narrative relates the resulting cat-and-mouse game of the two men.  Although films noir often feature exaggerated plot events and circumstances, there are so many implausible elements in this story that the viewer’s suspension of disbelief is continually challenged along the way [1].  I will mention a few of these implausibilities below.

Because this story depicts how an evil character comes to prey on an essentially innocent and idyllic small American town, The Stranger has been compared, unfavorably, to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which might be thought to have more polish.  I would say, though, that the two films are on a par, and I wouldn’t put Shadow of a Doubt above The Stranger (despite the latter’s plot absurdities). 

One of the compelling features of The Stranger is the magnetism of its three principal leads, all of whom occupy significant portions of narrative focalization:
  • Orson Welles plays Franz Kindler, the alleged mastermind behind the Nazi extermination camps.  When he comes to the middle-class town of Harper, Connecticut, he assumes the name Charles Rankin, and he is generally known by that name in the film.  Welles seemed to relish playing roles of demonic characters, and his emphatic performance  provides dramatic electricity.
  • Edward G. Robinson plays Mr. Wilson, the US government official from the Allied War Crimes Commission office. His appearance as a clandestine investigator in a scene is usually first signaled by an image of his smoking pipe.  Robinson’s persona is very much a reprise of his quiet, calculating role in Double Indemnity (1944), and it plays well here, too.
  • Loretta Young plays Mary Longstreet, who is the daughter of a US Supreme Court justice and who marries Charles Rankin (Kindler).  The perpetually young and elegant Ms. Young always had a unique feminine charisma and glamour that elevated the films she was in.  I have always found her eyes and emotive facial expressions to have some sort of hypnotic allure to them.
The narrative of The Stranger passes through four basic phases.

1.  Coming to Harper, Connecticut
Wilson, the Allied War Crimes Commission official, arranges to have convicted Nazi war criminal Konrad Meinike (played by Konstantin Shayne) released from prison in the hopes that the man will unknowingly lead them to the whereabouts of the still at-large Franz Kindler.  Sure enough Meinike leads them to the small town of Harper, Connecticut, where he immediately looks up a prep-school teacher there, Charles Rankin (Kindler). The secretive Kindler is paranoid on seeing his old comrade, and in bravura 4:10 tracking shot he lures Meinike into the woods and strangles him.  Then he buries corpse there. 

Early on one sees two implausibilities:
  • Kindler shows no trace of a German accent.
  • The supposedly meticulous German’s burial of Meinike’s corpse is so flimsy, that a dog can sniff it out and start digging it up.
Afterwards on that very day, Kindler marries Mary Longstreet, after which they go on a honeymoon.  Here is another implausibility.  Why would a man seeking to vanish from view marry the daughter of a US Supreme Court Justice.

Meanwhile Wilson, who had arrived in town tracking Meinike and was almost killed by the man, is masquerading as an antique dealer and lurking around to see if he can find who is Kindler.

2.  Closing in  
In the second phase of the film, more and more incriminating evidence points to Rankin as Kindler.  There is a conversation over dinner at Judge Longstreet’s house, with Wilson present as a guest, where Kindler makes an impassioned speech about the demonic essence of Nazism and of Germans, in general.  He does this to establish his anti-Nazi and anti-German credentials, but his subsequent remark that Karl Marx was a Jew, not a German, gives his prejudices away.  At any rate, anyone listening to Kindler’s over-the-top hate-filled comments would see that he is essentially a psychopath.  By this time both Kindler and Wilson have identified each other as enemies, and the cat-and-mouse game ensues. 

Kindler, worried about the burial site in the woods, takes Mary’s dog out for a walk to inspect the site.  But the dog sniffs the corpse and starts digging there, leading Kindler to eventually kill the dog.  Afterwards there is an effective 1:53 tracking shot showing Wilson and Mary’s brother Noah (Richard Long) discussing the poisoning of the dog as they walk along.

3.  Culprit Identified 
The killing of the dog leads Wilson and the authorities to look for and find Meinike’s body in the woods.  Wilson is now sure that Mary’s husband is his man, and he convinces Mary’s father, her brother, and her maid that her husband is a Nazi.  To convince Mary, Wilson shows her some at-that-time recent film footage of the Nazi death camps and gas chambers.  But Mary cannot believe that the man she loves is a Nazi and refuses to cooperate with Wilson.

Wilson predicts to Judge Longstreet that Kindler will try to kill Mary, but rather than save the woman, he chooses to let things play out (another implausibility).

4.  Ending in the Clock Tower  
Harper has a church with a defective mechanically animated clock in its tower that now comes more in focus. Kindler was famously known to be obsessed with clocks, and Rankin (Kindler) has been spending much time in the clock tower trying to fix the clock (another implausible activity for the supposedly cautious fugitive).  Feeling cornered, Kindler now retreats to the clock tower more than ever.  He also believes that the only person who could testify that he was acquainted with Meinike (and hence that he could be Meinike’s murderer) is Mary.  So he sets up a (implausible) trap in the clock tower to murder her there while he is away.  There are further implausible events [2], until in the end, Kindler, Mary, and Wilson all wind up in the top of the clock tower where the final reckoning is played out.

All the way along we have known that Rankin is Kindler and is essentially evil, so there is no suspense in identifying the guilty parties.  What we have instead are two gradual encirclements of predatory spiders moving in on their prey.
  • Wilson has been slowly, but relentlessly, closing in on Kindler.  Kindler’s world gradually diminishes until it finally ends up as just the confines of the clock tower.
  • At the same time Kindler has been increasingly putting pressure on and threatening his loving wife, Mary.  We see her enclosed and trapped by her psychopathic husband’s obsessive belief that she is the one witness who can identify his guilt.
These two encirclements come to a head in the clock tower at the film’s close.

There were two aspects of Welles’s original plans for the film that were denied by the studio through the offices of the film’s editor, Ernest Nims.  One was to include a significant early section of the story showing Meinike’s flight through Argentina before arriving in Harper.  Another was to have the role of Wilson played by a woman, Agnes Morehead, instead of Edward G. Robinson.  I think both of these ideas would have widened the film’s scope and extended its dramatic range beyond these two narrow “spider-encirclements” that are the focus of this film.  As it is, we are just left to savor primarily the expressionistic theatrics and cinematography that Welles has concocted for this story.

  1. For further discussion of these implausibilities, see Brian Koller, “The Stranger (1946)”, filmsgraded.com, (24 June 2011).
  2. For example, why would Mary, now knowing that her husband is a mass-murderer, go alone to the clock tower to meet him there?

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