The Stranger (1946)

When it’s on: Thursday, 22 October (7.20 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

A real curiousity of an Orson Welles picture, The Stranger is never talked about as one of the great man’s finest pieces of work. Working under severe studio restrictions and and without his usual freedom of expression, Welles turned in a film that was the closest he ever came to a standard production, hence the lack of love from those who talk about him as one of the great auteurs. And in truth it’s far from the best stuff he directed, but a film by Orson Welles is still a film by Orson Welles, with all the interesting camera angles, moody lighting and multi-faceted characters such a work entails. Would anyone else give such depth to a supporting player like Billy House’s wily old shopkeeper?

Just five years on from Citizen Kane, Welles was increasingly being seen as a pariah in Hollywood, wasteful and indulgent, and accepted the job of directing The Stranger – when John Huston left the production – in order to re-establish his reputation. Challenged to make the film in time and within its budgetary limits, he went one better and under-spent whilst taking on board RKO’s demand that he cast Edward G Robinson as the lead actor over his own preference of Agnes Moorehead. The prospect of Moorehead playing a hunter of escaped Nazi war criminals is a tantalising one, whereas Robinson appears to have stepped out of Walter Neff’s office in Double Indemnity and straight into portraying his character in The Stranger in exactly the same way. By all accounts, Robinson was unhappy with Welles’s direction, claiming he was constantly shot on his bad side, though Welles countered by wondering what his best side was exactly.

The resulting film is a fine, taut thriller shot in the Noir style and remains an absorbing watch. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a war criminal who has surfaced in sleepy Connecticut and now poses as History teacher Charles Rankin. Thoroughly absorbed into his new surroundings, Kindler/Rankin quickly establishes himself as part of the little community of Harper, volunteers to repair the damaged 300-year old church clock, and is even marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Hiding in plain sight, Rankin thinks he’s safe, but he’s reckoned without the efforts of Nazi hunter, Mr Wilson (Robinson), who releases compatriot Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) knowing full well he’ll lead him straight to his target. Sure enough, the desperate Meinike turns up in Harper, only to be murdered in the woods by Rankin, who buries him then and there. His nuptials with Mary take place; meanwhile Wilson is ingratiating himself within the town’s circles and the noose around Rankin’s neck slowly tightens.

Robinson is far from the most interesting thing about The Stranger. Whilst the audience’s sympathies are with him from the start, there’s something just so linear about his character – he knows what he wants and gets it, with a dogged, almost ‘Columbo’ sense of right on his side and the townspeople steadily coming round to his point of view. Young’s character is a lot more fun. For the most part, she stands by her man despite the evidence that’s growing against him, almost walking into a death trap due to her blind allegiance. Her crumbling resolve in the face of reality is heartbreaking to watch, the developing signs of guilt in everything she does nicely presaging her turn in The Accused, a great Noir flick from 1949. Even better is Welles himself, the veneer of warmth and rationality that surrounds him turning out to be just that as he realises Wilson is onto him, compelling him to take dramatic and increasingly insane steps in order to protect his identity, even if that means killing Mary, the only person who has any kind of solid clue about who he really is. And then there are the supporting characters, principally House’s Mr Potter. Running the local store feels like a front for his efforts to snoop on everything that’s happening in Hadley. His cheating at checkers, whilst mildly charming and roguish, actually gnaws at the town’s respectable and good natured sheen. You feel that if you chip away at it enough, the people are just as devious and self-serving as the Nazi in their midst.

Throw in some great photography, especially the vertiginous ladder climb up to the church clock on which Rankin works, and you have a very good pot-boiler. A long, long way from the best of Welles, yet efficiently made and with questions, not to mention a mean streak of black humour, bubbling under the surface.

The Stranger has been available in the public domain for some years – I watched it on Amazon Prime – though this does come with the usual health warning. It’s certainly worth a viewing.

The Stranger: ****

6 Replies to “The Stranger (1946)”

  1. I know it’s not Welles at his best and that some fans don’t rate it all that highly but I really like the film. There’s enough of Welles there, both sides of the camera, to give it some individuality. And also, it’s a good solid film noir that doesn’t actually disappoint in any area.
    There are some rotten copies of the movie kicking around, but some very nice ones too. I have the old European MGM DVD, which looks just fine to my eyes, and there’s also the new Blu-ray available.

    1. Thanks Colin – yes I agree with that, it’s a very fine noir thriller in its own right, and the added Welles makes it that bit more special. I do love how the little town becomes more claustrophobic to the character as though there’s nothing outside Harper. I know it’s been done elsewhere but it’s done very effectively here.

      1. It has been done before but it’s an attractive trope too. In fact, it’s not that far from normal human reaction – there is surely a tendency among most of us to feel locked in our own little universe when adversity comes calling. When filmmakers tap into that common feeling, as Welles surely does here, and successfully too, it strikes a chord with viewers.

  2. I quite agree that this is an undervalued film. As always, maddening to know that is was edited heavily by the studio so you are, as so often with Welles, left to ponder what could have been. But it is a superior thriller in every way and the murder in the forest, shot in an unbroken 5-minute take, is still breath-taking!

    1. Thanks Sergio. I didn’t know it had been cut heavily and thought must of the studio tinkering was done before a shot was made, in heavily censuring what Welles could get away with. In any event little surprise that he took his talents outside the Hollywood system – it must have been so frustrating.

      1. The early part of the film especially, in South America, were originally much more extensive and there was also a really important dream sequence involving Young that also got axed. But as you say, the objective was to make a commercially saleable product and it made a decent profit. On the other hand, Welles, like John Huston and Gene Kelly, was a genuine liberal who as much as anything was exiting Hollywood at the time of the Communist witchhunts

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