John Huston came up with the story for The Stranger and gifted friend Orson Welles with it so that Welles might have a commercial success. (Welles and Huston, uncredited, both worked on the script.) The small profit that the result netted helped make possible two far, far better Welles films: The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth (both 1947). Indeed, The Stranger, a postwar thriller about escaped Nazis lurking in small-town America, is Welles’s weakest completed film.
The hero of the film is named Wilson. A member of the Allied War Crimes Commission, he has orchestrated the “escape” from prison of Konrad Meinike so that this high-ranking Nazi will lead him to Meinike’s superior, the commander of “one of the most efficient” Nazi death camps, Franz Kindler, who has “disappeared” into Harper, Connecticut, where he has assumed the identity of a college professor of history, Charles Rankin. Marriage to Mary Longstreet, daughter of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, has further helped Kindler/Rankin blend into acceptable American society. Harper, the epitome of small-town America as much as Santa Rosa, California, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), is in a state of satisfaction owing to the end of the war and the concomitant renewal of American prosperity after a long spell of economic depression before the war and economic sacrifice during it. Wilson eventually gets his man, who is (stunningly) impaled on the blade carried by a rotating figure on a gigantic old clock.
Kindler/Rankin is repairing this clock throughout the film. His “hobby” of clocks, we are told, borders on mania. He wishes to turn back time, at least to a point prior to the defeat of the Nazis and their dreams of world domination. Our first closeup of the campus building clock shows one hand moving backwards, that is, counterclockwise, as a result of its being cleaned in preparation for Kindler/Rankin’s work on it. On the telephone, Kindler/Rankin doodles a swastika, but a backward swastika that appears to be turning counterclockwise instead of clockwise. This is all fine visual detail—the sort of minutiae that occupies at least some of Welles’s attention, presumably to compensate for the film’s impoverished concept. I especially like the slip of the mind that exposes Rankin as Kindler to Wilson at a dinner party. Camouflaging his political disposition, Rankin delivers an earnest, well-reasoned denunciation of the German character, noting that, historically, Germany has nothing in its arsenal of beliefs comparable to France’s “liberty, equality, fraternity.” When Mary’s younger brother, Noah, rebuts with the example of Karl Marx’s vision of united workers, Rankin reacts by saying that Marx wasn’t a German but a Jew. Wilson tells his contact in Europe by phone that night that only a Nazi would say that someone isn’t German because he is Jewish. For me, this is the film’s most powerful moment, a superior example of mental detective work. I like the fact that the Nazi hunter really is an intellectual match for Rankin/Kindler, who couldn’t be more rank or less kind. Wilson tells the truth when he describes himself as “cold-blooded”; he is as ruthless in pursuit of Nazis as Kindler is in his attempts to evade justice.
The cruelty of Kindler’s impersonation leads to Mary’s near nervous breakdown and to the death of the family dog, Red (is there a political angle to the name?), which is intent on digging up Meinike, whom Rankin/Kindler has murdered. (He also murders Red.) But the shadowy nature of Russell Metty’s black-and-white cinematography suggests there may be other secrets being kept in Harper. The Longstreet family is odd. Mary addresses her father by his first name, Adam (biblically, the first of first names), and he in turn addresses her as “Sister.” For his part, the boy, Noah, always seems on the verge of tears—or, should I say, flooding? Adam, we are informed, is a very “liberal” member of the U.S. Supreme Court, and I kept wondering, in light of the strange family interactions, just how many sexual liberties at home he has taken in the past. Harper’s principal comic relief is Mr. Potter, who runs the general store and who plays mind games on opponents, preserving his own airtight focus, as he beats them at checkers for a quarter a pop. On the other hand, Harper is more hospitable to strangers than small American towns, infamously parochial and guarded, usually are. I worry that part of the film’s message is paranoid, to wit, people ought to be more vigilant. I recall from childhood my older brother describing an aunt of ours as someone who finds Nazis under every bed. I should hate to think of either Huston or Welles in this way.
The script, which is credited (at different stages) to Victor Trivas, Decla Dunning and Anthony Veiller, is convoluted and farfetched; I can’t imagine a father, much less one who is a Supreme Court justice, participating in a scheme to catch a menace that puts his daughter’s life in such keen jeopardy. On the other hand, the film is full of excellent visual touches and flourishes. It is a Welles film, however dimly. Welles himself plays the Nazi and doesn’t wink at us once. Edward G. Robinson brings a recognizably Jewish face to the role of Wilson, although a stronger result might have been achieved had Welles gotten his way; Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play Wilson! The film’s chief liability is its lead actress. Welles can do little or nothing to make Loretta Young appear even vaguely human as she emotes all over the place in the role of Mary. This is another of Young’s fatuous, empty performances. As she imitated Irene Dunne in 1930s romantic comedies, Young now was imitating Joan Crawford. She is given a beautiful line when Mary expresses disbelief to Charles that, regarding Germans, he should “favor a Carthaginian peace,” and one can just tell that Young hasn’t a clue as to what the line she is speaking means. I am sure that Welles took time to explain it; but, while you can lead a Young to water, you cannot make her think.