Though its closing clock-tower confrontation leaves a vivid, lasting impression, elsewhere there’s much to savour in Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946). In fact, from pitch-perfect performances to a range of impressive technical credits, a kind of perfection clinches this drama of a Nazi hunter venturing into small-town America to track down a notorious German war criminal.
In the opening scene we see frustrated officer of the Allied War Crimes Commission, Mr.Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), demanding that Konrad (Konstantin Shayne), be allowed to escape with the certainty that he will attracted to his former teacher Franz Kindler – the catch they really want – like a helpless magnet. All roads lead to Harper, Connecticut, a clean-cut, picturesque, pleasantly anonymous small town. Just the sort of place you’d expect the man who oversaw the extermination of thousands of Jews to be lurking.
As we arrive in town, a wedding is about to take place, tying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), daughter of a local judge, to her beloved, a professor at the local school, Charles Rankin (Orson Welles). Could Rankin be the man the shrewd, pipe-smoking Mr.Wilson seeks, the reprehensible individual using the context of an ordinary American existence as camouflage?
With a literate, intelligent, and yet sparse screenplay, The Stranger effectively taps into the paranoia of the times – a fear of the ‘enemy in our midst’, taking shelter in homes right under our noses whilst shaking our hands and smiling at our children. Welles uses the visual articulation of film noir to paint his boldest dramatic strokes: revealing, minutely timed close-ups; expressive deep blacks; paltry lighter shades to suggest an unrealistic utopian façade; faces in half-shadow as motives are both shielded and implied in a single shot.
The director’s own performance is brilliant, using a furrowed brow to reflect angst and consternation. Then there’s the gentle, soothing but persuasive voice that very coerces Mary into believing the lies his unravels as reluctant truths as the relentless Mr.Wilson closes his net, using the equally relentless weight of the ‘subconscious’ as a detective tool.
Written by Anthony Veiller from a story by Victor Trevas, The Stranger can rightly be called a minor classic even if it feels influenced by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), another film in which a beloved character – Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie – also conceals a sinister side. Though neither does so for long; in both cases we’re denied the suspense of questioning the identities of these men, both of whom are revealed, early on, as fakers, taking steps to inveigle their way into the favours of others through stealth and deception – and by blending in with the populace at large.
It’s the infiltration of the ordinariness of what we take for granted that informs the film, a substantial hit at the time, delivered as it was in the wake of the Second World War. But the underlying subtext has universal staying power: fear of the unknown, in its various racial and prejudiced guises, continues to unleash spectral enemies from the depths of our collective over-active subconscious.
Funnily enough Welles has been quoted as saying he deplored The Stranger and saw nothing of himself in it. He employed craftsmen of the highest order to fulfil various duties however, including cinematographer Russell Metty whose black and white images are immaculately conceived, and composer Bronislau Kaper whose atmospheric score reflects both the poisonous menace at hand and the psychological sufferance under which the heinous Kindler and his gullible prop Mary advance into an enveloping quagmire of self-destruction. In this case, Welles was wrong. The Stranger, far from being his worst film, stands the test of time, possessing substance, merit, relevance and great entertainment value.