CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Let’s drop all this nonsense about Orson Welles’ “The Stranger” being somehow unworthy of him. It’s a damn fine 1940s thriller, so let’s all take a deep breath and admit to that.
True “The Stranger” lacks the razzle-dazzle imagery that we expect of Welles–to the delight of his fans and to the exasperation of his critics–but then it is the most serious of Welles’ “entertainments” (using that word in the Graham Greene sense) dealing as it does with the monstrous nature of The Holocaust and the quest for at least a semblance of retributive justice. Aside from a shadowy expressionistic opening in which we follow the footsteps of former S.S. big-wig Karl Meinike as he embarks upon a mission from “The All-Highest” to contact his former superior Franz Kindler, who seems to be a mash-up of Albert Speer and Reinhard Heydrich, there’s not much obvious visual sparkle. Meinike’s quest leads him to a quiet New England college town where mass-murderer Kindler has somehow established himself in an exclusive men’s prep school as Charles Rankin, Professor of German History. Now the very setting demands a sort of open-faced plainness. This is a town whose life revolves around the general store where Mr. Potter holds court as a benevolent small-town Solon–who’s not above cheating at checkers when there’s money at stake–and whose physicality is dominated by the plain, but imposing white wooden church with its towering steeple. This is about as far from Xanadu or the Amberson Mansion as anyone can get. (Although the production design was by Perry Ferguson who worked on “Kane.”)
Once Meinike has contacted Kindler/Rankin he doesn’t last long. At first his old boss is amused to find that his heel-clicking subordinate has become a religious fanatic–he meant THAT All-Highest, not the other one–but he quickly realizes that the authorities have allowed the addled Meinike to escape, expecting him to lead them to Kindler. Welles gets great tension out of a fairly abrupt strangulation-murder by having Rankin frantically trying to conceal the corpse in the woods while students from the school are engaged in a paper-chase. Russell Metty contributed some fine work to this woodland chase sequence.
Meinike’s death doesn’t end Rankin’s troubles because a Mr. Wilson, who claims to be an out-of-town antiques dealer has also turned up in this heretofore quiet town. I have read that Welles originally wanted the war-crimes investigator Wilson to be a woman and to be played by his Mercury Theater favorite, Agnes Moorhead. This would indeed have been a performance to watch, but the part went to someone else. But that someone was Edward G. Robinson who brought intelligence and passion to the role. He knows one thing about Kindler–who had destroyed all photographs of himself (a rather Wellesian, Arkadin-eque touch that!)–he loves old clocks. And Professor Rankin is hard at work in his spare-time restoring just such a clock. What does he plan to do with this restored mechanical clock with its dancing angels and devils? Why plaster it right onto to the severe colonial steeple of the town’s historic church. Talk about Cultural Imperialism! Why would the town allow some prep school teacher to do this? Because he is the fiancé of Mary Longstreet whose father is a Supreme Court Justice and the town’s leading citizen–bigger even that Mr. Potter. I might add that the title is bit ambiguous. The title can apply to Wilson as easily as it can to Kindler/Rankin. Perhaps more so in that the Nazi has successfully integrated himself into the life of the town, while the investigator remains an isolated figure, reduced to pumping Potter for information as he loses to him at checkers.
It’s a wonderful bit of symbolism that the Nazi Rankin–the worst that Europe has to offer–has insinuated Old European Values to the town with this clock whose hourly chiming disturbs the peace and quiet of the townsfolk. (I think we lose sight of just how literate this script really is. It was scripted by Anthony Veiler and John Huston, who scripted “The Killers” that same year, and Welles may have contributed to it as well.) The “conquest of the clock” is Kindler’s victory, but like other Nazi victories it will be short-lived. In a final confrontation with Wilson, Kindler becomes impaled by the sword of the avenging angel (hmm?) and tumbles from the steeple taking the angel with him and, we assume, destroying the mechanism of the clock. One wonders how long it will be before the town fathers have the rest of the offending thing hauled down and packed off to a museum.
“The Stranger” transcended its simple manhunt-thriller premise by being, I think, the first film to actually show theater-goers film taken inside of the death-camps. I would hope that this was deeply unsettling to audiences in 1946. And if for that reason alone, “The Stranger” deserves more credit than it usually receives.