Orson Welles’s movies have thus far failed to hold me spellbound (yes, that includes Citizen Kane), even if I might occasionally be lulled into temporary hypnosis by their technical wizardry. And I find that The Stranger fails at delivering even such ephemeral thrills, let alone any insight into the human condition. Surprisingly, the film sports comparatively little of the celebrated wunderkind’s characteristic emphasis on style, lacking the razzle-dazzle cinematography of Kane; the luxuriant period-piece costumes of The Magnificent Ambersons; or even the serpentine (albeit pretentiously cerebral) storyline of Touch of Evil. Devoid of such Houdini-esque manipulations, this drab film noir begins devolving into an underwhelming slog at about the 10-minute mark, assisted in this endeavor by its thinly veiled agenda of anti-Nazi messaging, in which respect it treads even more water than Hitchcock’s 1944 film Lifeboat.
In its theme of evil nestled within an idyllic setting, The Stranger also resembles another Hitchcock film, Shadow of a Doubt, though the preposterous premise of Welles’s opus is one factor that makes it far less terrifying. At the center of this overblown postwar drama is Welles the actor, portraying a ruthless Nazi war criminal named Franz Kindler who now lives and works as a history professor under an alias, Charles Rankin, in the small New England town of Harper, Connecticut. But his whereabouts are soon to be uncovered, thanks to a chance visit from an old Reich buddy, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) who—get this—has had a religious epiphany and is looking for Kindler so that he can convince him to confess his sins to God!
Meinike’s newfound piety is one example of how contrived and poorly conceived the screenplay of this film is, serving as a ludicrously implausible excuse to set the events of the film in motion or, perhaps, even make the movie in the first place. As the film’s tedious, ultra-linear narrative unfolds, we are on the trail of Kindler from the perspective of a detective from the United Nations Commission on War Crimes, known simply as Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), who has followed Meinike by bus to Harper. Meinike learns he is being pursued and, ambushing him in the school gymnasium, deals a nasty blow to Wilson’s head that he incorrectly presumes fatal, proudly informing Kindler of his deed. Huh? Guess you must not have been thinking of God then, Konrad. Ah well, as you’ll soon find out, your minutes are numbered anyway.
The ultimate false note is Welles’s seeming inability to elicit much of the sinister side from his character. Strange, because he does it so well in The Third Man. Sitting at the dinner table, he drily recites to his wife Mary (Loretta Young, who plays her role with a risibly stagey deportment) and other dinnertime guests a spiel about the glory of Hitler and his regime as if he were some petulant child who’d been impressed by a diatribe he’d just read in Mein Kampf. Welles wants to appear icy and cold, but I only see a boyishly wicked smile beneath his mustachioed upper lip. Mary, who has only recently become Kindler’s bride, has waited too long for her picket fence and lace curtains to initially believe that Kindler could be involved in deeds so heinous. So she promises to stick by him and, in so doing, sparks a scene of romantic melodrama so tawdry, it might as well have been out of Titanic.
The hammy characterizations, coupled with the awkward direction and prosaically written script, are particularly noticeable given the film’s genre. Noir by definition is all about shadows visually suggesting the stuff of mystery, dicks and delinquents, babes and bullets. But perhaps the most obvious noir feature missing from The Stranger is witty banter. Edward G. Robinson must understand this only too well after his virtuosic performance as the fast-talking, sharpie insurance salesman in an earlier film, Billy Wilder’s masterful Double Indemnity from 1944, perhaps the pinnacle of the genre. He usually plays his gangster and sleuth characters with such point and irony, but the dialogue has so little meat to it, just choppiness and didactic platitudes. By the time Mr. Wilson reveals to Mary the danger of the marriage she’s in by showing her clips of the instruments of torture Kindler was responsible for—the lime pits and gas chambers—my yawns were irrepressible. Not that it isn’t an important message, of course. It’s just that such an approach worked so much better in Peter Cohen’s The Architecture of Doom documentary.
On that note, The Stranger seems like another one of those films in which a horrific historical event is used to incite audience catharsis. Which is pretty sad, because it only reduces both the aesthetic product and the event itself to a marketing ploy. We’ve seen the Holocaust reduced to mindless emotional manipulation numerous times in film history, relatively recently with such infantile, simplistic, good-versus-evil tripe as Schindler’s List and Inglourious Basterds.
Another type of manipulation—visual effects, grand perspectives, and lighting— for which Welles is so famed appears sorely lacking here. Not that effects ever really impress me that much, but they’re spectacular in a film like Kane—what with the chiaroscuro, the Dracula-esque mansion, and the iconic light beams, to name a few—and one of the few reasons I would watch that trumped-up roman à clef for a fourth time. In The Stranger, by contrast, there’s a conspicuous absence of flair. Welles casts a few well-placed shadows here and there, a notable example being the silhouettes of Mary and the wicked hubby she trusts (for now) against the dim lighting of their bedroom. And the darkness in the town’s clocktower, faintly lit by the moon, is eerie. Can’t say the same for the insistent clock metaphor, tolling in expectation of Kindler’s eventual demise, which is typically invasive (since it appears at least five times) Wellesian symbolism and seems to function unambiguously as a crude announcement of the film’s inexorable conclusion.
If you’re like me, by the time the concluding credits on The Stranger roll, you might start to wonder whether all you’ve seen and heard in the past is true—in short, whether Welles is really the cinematic equivalent of the great Oz or just a humbug charlatan pulling strings behind the curtain.
Joe’s Grade: C