The Stranger isn’t most people’s favorite Orson Welles film, and a lot of people even consider it his worst. (Welles did.) It’s the third film he directed, and as far as Oscar bait goes, it certainly pales in comparison with Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but I think a lot of the criticism heaped upon it is unfair. The Stranger is a crackerjack thriller with tension and suspense to spare. I was drawn in by the first scene, and was completely involved throughout the film’s 95-minute running time.
Despite its sometimes hackneyed script and implausible situations, The Stranger shows a master in complete control of his craft. The first 15 minutes of the film are some of the most perfect cinematic storytelling I’ve ever seen. Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator for the Allied Commission for the Punishment of War Criminals, sets free a Nazi war criminal named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) and has him tailed, believing that he will lead them to the secret architect of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler (Welles). Kindler is living in the idyllic little town of Harper, Connecticut, under the name “Charles Rankin” and is a professor at a boy’s school.
Meinike’s journey to find Kindler is an object lesson in how to tell a story with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of tension. The shots are visually arresting, the editing is rapid without ever being confusing, and the pacing is fast. As openings go, it’s not quite the bravura performance Welles would later put on with his single crane shot that opens Touch of Evil (1958), but it’s just as good in its own way. The disconnect only appears during the first lengthy stretch of dialogue. Once Meinike tracks down Prof. Rankin, the clumsy exposition that Welles grumbles through — which explains who his character is, whom he is marrying, and who his father-in-law will be — sticks out like a sore thumb.
Meinike will prove to be just the beginning of Rankin’s troubles. The noose tightens around his neck as soon as Wilson arrives in town, posing as a dealer in antiques. Robinson plays his role well, in an understated fashion that contrasts nicely with Welles’s bug-eyed histrionics. After a few extreme close-ups of Rankin’s sweaty face as he tells lies to convince his new wife, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), that he is an innocent hounded by nefarious forces, there is no doubt about the depths of his villainy.
Not that there every really was any doubt, since Rankin behaves in such a despicable fashion throughout the picture. It’s not just his dinnertime conversation — in which he explicates the warlike soul of the German people and denies that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew — it’s his willingness to engage in wet work, killing a troublesome character without a second thought and later beating his new wife’s dog when it attempts to dig up the corpse.
In his review of The Stranger in the July 11, 1946, edition of the NY Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that Welles’s performance “gave no illusion of the sort of depraved and heartless creatures that the Nazi mass-murderers were. He is just Mr. Welles, a young actor, doing a boyishly bad acting job in a role which is highly incredible — another weak feature of the film.” Again, I think this is unfair. Welles got his start in the theater, and as a thespian, he never really grew out of it. His acting was always highly theatrical. He was a man who played to the back row, with grand gestures and a booming voice, but he did so extremely effectively. Not every film performance has to be subtle and understated.
It’s his work behind the camera, however, that really shows Welles in top form. The fast cutting in a scene in a diner, for instance, creates a tense subtext beneath Loretta Young’s seemingly casual banter with Edward G. Robinson by showing each character’s motivations by the looks on their faces. Mary is hiding something, Rankin is coercing her into doing so, and Wilson knows exactly what is going on. Director Welles and editor Ernest J. Nims make it all look easy, but it’s not, or more films would be this well-made.
The film also brilliantly uses sound. For instance, the tolling of the clock in the village square (which the clock-obsessed Rankin has fixed) underscores the tension in the film’s final half hour. The bonging of the clock has a peculiar timbre, and sounds more like incidental music from a ’70s or ’80s suspense or horror flick than any soundtrack from the ’40s I’ve ever heard before. The score itself, by Bronislau Kaper, is quite good, too, and is reminiscent of the work of Bernard Herrmann.
The screenplay, by Anthony Veiller, from a story by Victor Trivas, was imposed on Welles by the studio. The studio and the producer, Sam Spiegel (listed in the credits as “S.P. Eagle”), made plenty of other decisions Welles didn’t like. For instance, Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the part of Wilson, but they forced him to go with Robinson. As far as the studio was concerned, however, everything worked out for the best, since The Stranger was the only film Welles directed that ever made a profit during its initial theatrical run.
The Stranger is a potboiler, to be sure, but it’s such a brilliantly edited, directed, and acted potboiler that it’s remarkable. This is one of those rare movies that I looked forward to seeing again as soon as it was over.