The Stranger was Orson Welles' third film. He set out to prove that he could make a movie that could perform at the box office. His previous two directorial efforts – the absolute film classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons – were box office failures. His third was a more traditional film and, like one of it's movie poster predicted, was Welles' first box office successes.
Today the “programmer” is considered Welles' weakest. I don't buy it. The Stranger is an amazing looking film – and Welles first directed film noir. The most notable and memorable scene in The Stranger is an exciting chase in and on an elaborate clock tower. Foster Hirsch – in his book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen– writes:
The clock tower is a dark cramped place which can only be entered by climbing rickety ladders. The clock is referenced a number of times throughout the film and you just know the hero of the story is going to end up there. The editing during the clock sequence is just amazing. Welles and Edward G. Robinson – up until that point just toying with each other by playing cat and mouse – frantically rush through the giant cuckoo clock. The scene is edited in such a way that it seems like both men – going back and forth - are mimicking each others actions. All of it taking place in a dangerous enclosed environment.Places in noir reveal character... Settings are chosen for thematic reinforcement. Cars and trains and boxing arenas figure prominently in noir stories because they provide visual metaphors of enclosure and entrapment.
But that's the end. The setup is excellent as well.
Edward G. Robinson plays Wilson – a Nazi hunter. He convinces authorities holding a former Nazi to release a low-level war criminal (twitchy Konrad Meinike played by Konstantin Shayne) in hopes that the German will lead them to his Nazi superior. Wilson breaks his pipe when he passionately pleads for them to release the man. The little man is let go – and it's made to look like a breakout. Robinson follows him to a small peaceful New England town. Wilson is an intellectual (like Robinson himself) and not a cop. He botches the tail job and is spotted quickly – thanks to the tape around his repaired pipe. In a handsomely shot scene in a gymnasium (Welles and photographer Russell Metty are in fine form during the opening scenes) the escapee bops Wilson in the head erasing the trail Wilson was following. Meinike – losing his tail – now feels free to visit his former superior.
Loretta Young plays Mary Longstreet – the town's prep school headmaster's naive daughter that who's first seen hanging curtains on her wedding day.
Young plays “women teetering on the edge” in a few other good noirs. She's a frantic housewife in Cause for Alarm! and plays a spinster professor who tries to fulfill her sexual desires in The Accused – only to kill the man making advances on her in self defense.
In The Stranger, while waiting for her husband-to-be to come home, is visited by Meinike. The strange man runs off when he finds her fiance Professor Charles Rankin isn't home.
Then we're introduced to Orson Welles as Professor Rankin. Welles – directing himself – is excellent. Rankin is revealed to be a former Nazi. He's approached walking down the street by Meinike and he quickly hustles him off into the woods. He kills the man while he prays. Rankin evil streak clearly hasn't stopped since the war ended. The shookup professor throws the body in a ditch just seconds before some student “paper chase” happens by. Later in the movie he kills his wife's beautiful golden retriever Red – after the dog uncovers the man Rankin killed in a shallow grave. Welles brilliantly and convincingly plays the part without a hint of a German accent.
After killing his old friend Rankin returns home and the wedding goes as planned. Wilson suspects there may be something up with Rankin – who he finds out is new in town. Wilson – posing as an antique dealer - works his way over to the newlyweds house for dinner. It's only later in the night – popping out of bed - does he realize that Rankin is a Nazi when he remembers one of the professor's outrageous lines during dinner. Wilson reasons, “Well, who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German... because he was a Jew?”
Methodical and intelligent Wilson doggedly investigates Charles Rankin (the alias for Nazi Franz Kindler). Rankin/Kindler – always one step ahead of Wilson - convinces his wife and the townsfolk that he's innocent. The town's mood collectively goes from sunny to sullen under the pressure of the murder investigation. Hardest to convince of Rankin's guilt is Rankin/Kindler's loyal new wife Mary. Finally, she's exposed to the atrocities of war by Wilson (in a daring scene for 1946). Mary confronts her husband and he goes over the edge. Rankin (Welles goes appropriately over the top) attempts to kill her and then flees to the clock tower – and to a thrilling conclusion to The Stranger.
The clock reminds me of another Welles film. Carol Reed's The Third Man:
Welles as Harry Lime states,
The Stranger movie has been in the public domain – meaning it's not owned but is public property- for years. Most DVD copies of the film are horrible. The best one I've viewed is the release from MGM a few years back. This movie – like another film that has fallen into the PD Scarlet Street – is probably best enjoyed when watching a clear, clean print if possible.“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
I suspect that The Stranger isn't considered great by film historians because it is lesser than say Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil. It also wobbles a bit in the middle too (and how could Wilson not guess he was a Nazi after that dinner conversation?) However, you couldn't make a better choice if you're looking for a conventional, fantastic looking film noir thriller.