The setting is post-World War II and The Stranger opens with Nazi hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) following Konrad Meinike (Konstantine Shayne), as he embarks on a cruise boat headed for the United States. Meinike’s final destination is the town of Harper, Connecticut. Meinike has arrived in Harper to meet his former colleague, Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). The audience discover that Kindler is a notorious Nazi war criminal living under the assumed identity of Charles Rankin. It turns out Rankin is a well respected professor who is days away from marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), a woman from a local, prominent family.
The audience also discovers that Meinike was purposely set free by the authorities to identify Franz Kindler, since no photographs of Kindler exist. Unfortunately for Meinike, his reunion with Kindler does not go as planned.
For the remainder of the film, Wilson is on a mission to convince those around him that Rankin is the man he is looking for.
OSCAR Nominee for BEST Original Screenplay
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The artistic and critical success of Citizen Kane left Orson Welles in a unique and ultimately unenviable situation. Every film he would make after Kane would be unfairly compared to it. By this standard, The Stranger does not hold up very well. However, The Stranger is still a grade above most of the crime dramas produced during this period.
Most crime dramas produced during this period of time are identified as film noir. At best, the criteria of what classifies a movie as film noir is very fluid. So while The Stranger has noir-ish elements, I feel it is missing some of the grittiness and latent sexuality often associated with film noir. On the other hand, Orson Welles’ next feature The Lady from Shanghai is a much more stylized and sincere attempt at capturing noir’s aesthetic.
The solid central performances are essential to making The Stranger a watchable film. In a role reminiscent of his turn as Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity, Edward G. Robinson is in fine form as Wilson. Loretta Young captures the essence a woman whose world is eventually shattered by the revelation of her husband’s true identity. Orson Welles is equally believable as a man who on one hand is an affable small town professor and on the other hand is a ruthless, cold-blooded criminal.
Among the supporting players, Mr. Potter, as portrayed by Billy House, is worth noting. He provides comic relief to a narrative that is generally somber in atmosphere and tone.
As a director, Welles ably deploys low-key lighting and non-traditional camera angles. These are cinematographic devices that became his trademark in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. In addition it is as established fact that he co-wrote the script with John Huston, although they did not receive screen credit.
In conclusion, while not one of Welles’ finest works, The Stranger will keep you engaged until the very end. Therefore I recommend it.
Note: I see many parallels between this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Each film begins with an ensuing chase. It is followed by an outsider or set of outsiders arriving in an idyllic town and concludes with the actions of the outsider forever disrupting the lives of the town’s inhabitants. Even the fact that there are no photographs of Charles Oakley or Franz Kindler is similar. The only difference is how the antagonists’ identity is revealed. In Shadow, the identity of Charles Oakley as the “Merry Widow Murderer” is only revealed to and the two cops tailing him. In The Stranger, the Kindler’s identity is revealed to the entire town in the final, climatic clock tower scene.