The Stranger (1946)
Dir. Orson Welles; Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, Loretta Young
Five years after the masterpiece (and bane of college film students) Citizen Kane (1941), director Orson Welles released his most successful film: The Stranger (1946). However, he and many auteur critics considered it his “worst” and least “personal” film. Looking back now, although it doesn’t quite live up to the brilliant cinematography of Touch of Evil (1958) or the nightmarish The Trial (1962)––which Welles considered his best film––The Stranger still holds its own. The thriller follows Mr Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator for the United Nations War Crimes Commission, as he tracks down a Nazi fugitive named Franz Kindler. Kindler, played by Welles himself, has escaped just after World War II to the sleepy town of Harper, Connecticut, where he has assumed a new identity as Charles Rankin, professor of German history, and clock enthusiast. In an attempt to expose Rankin as Kindler, Wilson shows Rankin’s new wife, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young)––who happens to be the daughter of a Supreme Court justice––footage from Nazi concentration camps. He explains that Kindler/Rankin was one of the architects behind the “Final Solution.” For a while, Mary refuses to accept the bitter truth, but is finally forced to renounce her husband.
Strictly viewed as a thriller, The Stranger leaves something to be desired. The suspense of the film builds up slowly, but the climax is rather dull: Rankin/Kindler is frankly too easily outwitted. Throughout the film, we are told that Kindler was an infamous mastermind of the Holocaust, a remarkable historian, and an expert clockworker, but for all that, his most ingenious plan to escape is to hide in the clocktower––surely the first place anyone would look for him. And then there’s the bizarre suggestion that a man who willingly, even happily, sent millions of innocent people to their deaths could be so rattled by the words of a wife he hardly even loved. Moreover, this ending feels cliché rather than heroic. Perhaps this is because it seems impossible to outweigh Rankin’s horrific war crimes simply with his own death, or maybe it’s because the idea that good triumphs over evil is no longer satisfying fifty years after the end of the Hays Code.
The problems with the end of The Stranger are largely a produce of the dated feel of the film. The depiction of the sleepy Connecticut town struck me as something of a nostalgic past, one that probably never really existed anyways. This is a mythological space where the postwar American dream has come to life. When we first enter Harper with Mr Wilson, we see drugstores, gymnasiums, and a distinctly New England clock belltower. At one point, a group of (male) college students in ties run off to play a game in the woods. Their “paper chase” seems antiquated and childish––they’re supposedly college students––and almost seems to suggest a lost innocence. There are other dated moments, too. Relations between men and women are always strange in old films––the bizarre insistence on young girls kissing their older, male relatives in Hitchcock’s films, for instance––and this is no exception. At one point, Rankin tries to hide his crime from his new wife by alluding to an invented scandal. He tells her that he once went out in a boat with a young woman, who killed herself by jumping into the lake. Mary is clearly more upset by the allusion to his relations with her than the fact that a woman is dead. Then there’s the drugstore, with its five-cent-sodas and linoleum counters; the slightly-too-formal dinners; the quaint fascination with hobbies like antique collecting and fishing; the presence of maids in every home. Welles’s use of this postwar, white-picket-fence society for his escaped-Nazi-thriller achieves something like the juxtaposition of the “perfect” society in the beginning of Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with the disillusioned one after the town’s dirty underbelly of racism is exposed. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Welles’s film juxtaposes the supposed American dream with some destructive force (here, it is fascism rather than racism), and like Mulligan’s film, this produces a rather odd, frankly unbelievable portrayal of a sleepy town full of innocent, white Americans who are themselves the victims of some outside evil.
Fortunately, The Stranger’s merits lie neither in its suspense nor its conservative atmosphere, but rather in its ideological and historical content. From the very beginning, Welles frames the Nazi war crimes as one of its central subjects. The first shot after the opening credits shows a plaque on a door that reads “Allied War Crimes Commission.” Moreover, by placing the notorious criminal Franz Kindler in the picturesque town of Harper, Connecticut, and by wedding him to Mary, the daughter of Supreme Court Judge Longstreet (played by Philip Merivale), Welles puts on display both the presence of fascism in postwar America and the dangerous banality or even appeal of it. Fully steeped in the logic of It Can’t Happen Here, the citizens of the small town simply cannot believe that Rankin is a Nazi. Not that there aren’t clues. Early in the film, at a dinner party where Wilson and Rankin meet for the first time, the former Nazi tells the others: “Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the prince of peace. He’s…another Barbarossa. Another Hitler.” To the members of the dinner party, Rankin seems to be decrying the totalitarian nature of the German Volk, but to the viewer and to Welles, it is clear that Rankin is actually espousing this very theory. Rankin’s remark about Marx is meant to criticize not the Germanness, but rather the Jewishness of Marx’s theory. Welles also accomplishes this critique of Rankin on subconscious levels. Rankin, for instance, like the Nazi in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), cannot control his physical self, and at one point he even subconsciously begins drawing a swastika on a pad of paper.
The cinematic qualities and techniques achieved early in Welles’s career are worth observing on their own. One such moment is Welles’s use of the film-within-the-film. The concentration camp footage is screened privately for Mary, but in doing so, Welles achieves a double-viewing, since the audience is forced to watch alongside her. (This is a technique famously used by Michael Powell fourteen years later in Peeping Tom , a film that tackles the questions of voyeurism in film.) In The Stranger, these are images of concentration camp victims. Like Mary, the viewer is forced to “look at these horrors,” and thus recoils from the screen. Welles, of course, uses this technique in order to push his ideological mission––by forcing the audience to stare the past head-on, he is able to make them come to terms with their own guilt––but what is interesting about this sequence is the level of emotional effectiveness. While the rest of the film deals primarily with tropes, the gritty reality of this sequence (achieved by using real, archival footage), leaves the viewer disgusted and upset. Only here is the full weight of Rankin’s crime realized; Mary’s denial of the truth thus provokes a visceral reaction in the viewer.
The Stranger also represents a unique moment in cinematic history, due to its inclusion of documentary footage of concentration camps. Here, Welles deals with guilt and responsibility, not only Rankin’s, but also in society as a whole. Mary is horrified by what she sees, asking Wilson: “Why do you want me to look at these horrors?” Wilson replies: “All this you’re seeing…it’s is the product of one mind. The mind of a man named Franz Kindler. […] It was Kindler who conceived the theory of genocide, mass depopulation of conquered countries.” Welles thus reinforces the idea of individual guilt, denying Rankin the ability to claim that he was merely following duty. Much like Adolf Eichmann, whose 1961 trial shocked the world, Welles’s earlier portrayal of Rankin/Kindler deals with a man directly responsible for genocide who denies his own guilt. Notably, at the end of the film, it is neither Judge Longstreet (representing the US legal system) nor Wilson (who represents international legal systems via his position in the Allied War Crimes Commission) who brings about justice, but rather Mary and the ordinary citizens of Harper. Welles’s desire to bring about justice against the Nazis is enacted in this moment, both literally and metaphorically. When Kindler falls from a clocktower at the end and is impaled on an angel’s sword, there is obvious symbolic power. Evoking either Michael the archangel or Lady Justice, Kindler’s death represents a divine justice and punishment for his crimes. Rankin’s “sentence” is a product both of the individual (through the actions of Wilson and the final denunciation by Mary) and the collective (the crowd who ensure his arrest). The Stranger demonstrates Welles’s interest in exposing Nazi war crimes, in linking anti-Semitism and fascism, and in dealing with the role of guilt and justice on the level of both the individual and the collective.
My critiques of The Stranger are largely about my experience watching it in the 21st century. The film’s dated portrayal of the American dream cements it in the past, but the film is, after all, a piece of historical fiction set in a particular context. Films should always be treated with a critical eye. As a stunning document of the past, The Stranger remains a strong film despite the dated feel, and still functions as a warning against the dangers of fascism. Auteur critics may have seen The Stranger as the least impressive of Welles’s films, but its early commercial success and lasting emotional influence are surely testaments to its historical and cinematic importance.