The Stranger (1946)
director: Orson Welles | runtime: 1h 35mins | film-noir, drama
After following a war criminal Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a Detective for the War Crimes Commission, finds himself in the small town of Hopper, Connecticut. After the war criminal dies, he begins pursuing the real target, an infamous Nazi who now goes by the name of Charles Rankin (Orson Welles).
For many Orson Welles is considered a pioneer, a filmmaker that is rightly one of the most (if not the most) revered figures in cinema for his untouchable work. In fact it’s almost considered a sin if Citizen Kane (1941) isn’t among the top 10 in most ‘best of’ lists. But one film that shamefully isn’t spoken about is his 1946 Noir thriller, The Stranger. For what could have been a by-the-books manhunt story turns into a wordy and exhilarating experience that highlights just how in tune Welles was as a filmmaker, while also taking leaps that today might seem arbitrary, but in 1946 was a sight to behold.
The film takes place in the small Connecticut town of Hopper, where a head-strong Edward G. Robinson spends the majority of the film in the pursuit of newlywed Nazi Charles Rankin. Despite this being a clear expression of Film-Noir, something that Welles would excel even more in just a year later with The Lady From Shanghai (1947), there’s no discernible mystery to it. From the get go Charles Rankin is painted very clearly as the Nazi in question, murdering his fellow German compadre in the name of secrecy and for the majority of the film, using his wits and wherewithal to outflank Mr Wilson at any turn. This really is where the beauty of a wordy script comes into play, it’s never about the chase for either Welles or screenwriter Anthony Vieller but rather about highlighting the panic deep-rooted in the films antagonist, and in turn expressing the kind of desperation that real-life war criminals might resort to in order to stay hidden.
Despite this being a film with a strong opinion and a great use of words, make no mistake that Welles’ ambition and attention to craft are on full display. The smokey rooms are lit perfectly to capture the musky atmosphere that Noir requires, not only that but the simple techniques in tension are shot to perfection. One of the strongest parts as well is the films inclusion of the giant clock, something that the film’s protagonist is continually trying to fix throughout, and once eventually fixed it becomes a signal for his time being up. This kind of attention to detail seems so nuanced that it may even been an accident, but there’s a strong case that Welles is in full control of this and in fact is genius really does stretch that far. You could argue that these moments are a little too few in comparison to the directors strongest work, but they are still there on full show.
One of the biggest upsets this film has is in one of it’s biggest story devices, as Rankin’s new bride Mary, who’s played wonderfully by Loretta Young, seemingly latches onto her husband despite the truth literally staring her in the face. As more and more information comes to her attention, including her husband murdering her dog, she continues to stay loyal ‘for better or for worse’. Maybe this is better seen as panic and confusion, but it does feel like an expression of old-fashioned values towards marriage that in today’s world hardly seem necessary. But if you forgive this minor detail you can applaud the on-the-nose interpretation that Welles is going for. Remember this is a film that was released a year after the war ended, and while it hardly seems mesmerising today there is a lot to be said about the picture Welles paints about his antagonist, a smart and somewhat jitter figure that’s strongest points come in the form of a beaming monologue of deception that only has one slip up, an intentional one that sees him refer to Karl Marx as not German but a ‘Jew’.
It’s these nuances in both writing and crafted direction that make this so compelling, it’s words are it’s strongest hand but it’s followed up by some great moments of tension and character work. The whole cast is on top form, Edward G. Robinson has the same cool-headed approach of the very best fictional detectives, and while Orson Welles’ performance maybe lacks the beaming charisma that he would adopt for playing Harry Lime just 3 years later, there’s a lot to be said for his range and expression of desperation. This is a movie that isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Citizen Kane or even as enchanting as The Lady From Shanghai, but it’s definitely a testament to the directors work, and is continuously captivating throughout.