The Stranger (1946) Director: Orson Welles
“The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred, conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing, not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain, but we learned from our own casualty list the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everywhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No! He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the fiery sword of Siegfried. And in those subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in, the German’s dream world comes alive when he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic Knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace. No, he’s… another Barbarossa… another Hitler.”
In a small Connecticut town lurks a former high-ranking Nazi official, Franz Kindler who is posing as local prep school teacher, Professor Charles Rankin (played by the great auteur Orson Welles). Meanwhile, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) of the United Nations War Crimes Commission is following a trail of clues which will hopefully track down the brutal instigator of genocide, Franz Kindler, however all he has are vague rumors. He follows Kindler’s former associate Meinike to Connecticut in the hopes of picking up the trail to Kindler, and he knows Kindler has a unique obsession with clocks. Otherwise, Kindler is an entirely mysterious figure. It is an alluring set-up for a classic post-World War II noir. The quietude and safety of small town America is contrasted with the covert presence of pure evil –this is a great study in dramatic irony as the audience knows Kindler’s dark secret long before any of the characters in the film actually figure it out.
When Kindler and Meinike meet, Kindler is urged to come forward and confess his crimes but instead he strangles Meinike (while a group of boys goes running through the woods, nearly catching Kindler, but to them he is merely their beloved professor). When his dog “Red” discovers the body, Kindler poisons him. Gradually, Mr. Wilson pieces together this puzzle, particularly in a memorably nail-biting scene which shows Kindler slipping up over dinner and exposing some of his antisemitic views, but Mr. Wilson only succeeds after he manages to persuade Kindler’s wife, Mary (Loretta Young), of her husband’s guilt –he shows her documentary footage of the holocaust in one of the first moments in Hollywood history a film uses holocaust footage. It bridges the gulf between colorful fiction and ugly reality. At any rate, the intense conclusion to The Stranger leads to a shootout between Kindler and Mary atop the town clock tower as a small figure on the clock belfry impales him –a poetic end for a vicious killer with a fanatical obsession for clocks.
While we have all heard the stories of former Nazis hiding out in South America after the war, the idea that some might have been hiding in small town America is as compelling as it is disturbing. The Stranger is sometimes overlooked among Orson Welles’s incredible string of films in the 1940s —Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Lady From Shanghai— however I found this to be a brilliant adaptation of a simple concept told with all the shadowy, silhouetted tropes of the classic noir detective films.
At the time of its release, The Stranger was an attempt by Welles to conform to the usual standards of formulaic Hollywood especially after the roller-coasters of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Nevertheless, in later years he would sometimes remark that he thought The Stranger was a failure, his own personal worst film, and that it was little more than a cheap sell-out. The film has often drawn comparisons to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) as both films play with the illusion of safety experienced by ordinary Americans in their quiet little towns. It leads the mind to unsettling places: wondering what horrors might be lurking in the safest corners of American society.