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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: The Stranger (1946)

* * *

Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young

Writing about The Lady From Shanghai yesterday prompted me to rewatch another of Orson Welles' films, this one a taut crime thriller about Nazis. When I first saw The Stranger a few years ago it didn't make much of an impression on me, but I liked it a lot more on rewatch. If nothing else, it adds a new dimension to Welles' clock speech from The Third Man.

Edward G. Robinson stars as Mr. Wilson, an investigator with the United Nations War Crimes Commission on the hunt for Nazi fugitives, one in particular. He's searching for Franz Kindler (Welles), a top level Nazi (of whom no photographs exist) who has eluded the authorities and assumed a new identity in the United States. Posing as Professor Charles Rankin, Kindler has settled into a nice life in Conneticut and even married Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.

Wilson follows the trail to Connecticut and begins to connect the dots, however he can't find any hard evidence to back up his suspicions. Mary might be able to help the investigation, she being the only person who can connect Kindler/Rankin to a man named Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a former Nazi associate, but she refuses to believe that her husband isn't who he claims to be. By the time she does start to realize that there's something to what Wilson has been telling her, Kindler/Rankin is pretty desperate and she may well become his next victim.

The Stranger unfolds with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine and Welles does a terrific job at building tension and creating memorable set pieces. The big climactic scene, which takes place in a clock tower is memorable and, in a word, awesome. Welles makes for a great villain in this film and, as a director and one of the writers, crafts a really terrific death scene for himself. I don't want to spoil it, but it's really perfect - Welles is a great filmmaker for a lot of reasons, but he's particularly good when it comes to providing satisfying payoffs.

On its release in 1946 The Stranger proved to be Welles' most financially successful film, though it was also reportedly one of his least favourite of his films. It's true that it is not as ambitious as his best remembered films - in fact, it's a pretty conventional thriller in a lot of ways - but it is, nevertheless, quite good. Although, I do wonder about one thing: before Wilson knows for sure that Rankin is Kindler they have a conversation about Karl Marx in which Rankin/Kindler, with a hint of aggression, says dismissively, "He wasn't a German, he was a Jew." It isn't until much later that Wilson has a lightbulb moment and realizes that something is very amiss about what Rankin/Kindler said. Even if 1946, would a comment like that have passed without immediate notice? By a guy hunting down Nazis? Seems like ignorance for the convenience of the plot to me and a bit lazy.


Univarn said...

I watched this for the first time a couple weeks ago. Welles is good but I think he overacts the part a bit. I've always liked Edward G. Robinson and think he's just pure fun here. One of the issues I had with the movie is we pretty much know how everything is going to play out so there's not really that element of mystery/suspense -- except on a rather abstract level.

Norma Desmond said...

Agreed that there isn't a ton of surprise in terms of how it turns out, but I think Welles manages to build an incredible amount of tension regardless.