Friday, May 15, 2020

Time Bound: Orson Welles’ The Stranger

The Stranger is the title of more than 20 motion pictures from around the globe, some of them dating back to the silent era. While sheltering at home in the wake of COVID-19, I happened on one of them, the 1946 feature that was Orson Welles’ third film. Ironically enough, The Stranger was far more successful at the box office than Wellesian masterpieces like Citizen Kane. True, it had a somewhat flawed production history—Welles himself felt that script changes mandated by producer Sam Spiegel undermined the gravity of the project—but the film’s air of creeping menace seems right at home today. What’s different now is that the danger we feel is invisible, an eerie manifestation of the dark side of the natural world. In The Stranger, danger has all too human a face.

The setting of The Stranger, immediately following World War II, is key here. The action takes place in an idyllic American town where no trace of the ravages of war can be discerned. The only aspect of town life that seems to be amiss is that its venerable church clock, a relic (complete with revolving figures) that was long ago imported from Europe, no longer works. But a professor at the distinguished local prep school, a great lover of old clocks, has been hard at work to bring it back to life.

What nobody knows is that the good professor, known locally as Professor Charles Rankin, is in fact Franz Kindler, a dedicated Nazi who had recently presided over a death camp. Though he fits in nicely in this small American town, to the extent that he’s marrying the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, he will stop at nothing (including murder) to keep his former identity a secret. Director Welles plays Rankin with his usual bravado: he’s the kind of man you love to hate. Also toplined in the cast are Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson. She, as Rankin’s new wife, is a pretty but vacuous presence, one who rather surprisingly accepts her husband’s excuses and keeps his secrets—until, at last, she doesn’t. Robinson, plays the role of a newcomer to town, a war crimes investigator following a trail that leads to Rankin. It’s surprising to learn that Welles himself wanted this role to be played by Mercury Theatre regular Agnes Moorehead, feeling she’d be a more unlikely and thus more interesting sleuth on Rankin’s trail. But of course the acerbic Robinson is always fun to watch.

Welles decked out The Stranger with the trappings of film noir. He also lavished on this production the kind of bravura camera work and editing that make Citizen Kane so spectacular. Perhaps it’s fair to say that he goes a bit overboard here, with all manner of mirror shots, Dutch angles, and moments of deep focus. Especially during the climax that (of course) takes place in and around that clock tower, he pulls out all the stops. (The tower itself makes the one used by Hitchcock in Vertigo seem a wee bit bland by comparison.) Detracting from the overall effect are plot holes through which you could drive a Sherman tank. Or maybe I’m the only one annoyed by how many people can successfully go up and down a sabotaged ladder.

In one respect, realism prevails. The Stranger was the first feature film to incorporate actual Nazi concentration camp footage, which is screened by Robinson’s character to establish Rankin’s culpability. It’s not the most horrific footage that would eventually be revealed to the  American public, but it’s good to see truth having its day. 


  1. I don't think I've ever seen this, but now will definitely look for it!

  2. It's flawed, but definitely worth checking out, Theresa. Thanks for writing!