Released: May 25, 1946
Director: Orson Welles; Screenplay: Anthony Veiller (screenplay), Victor Trivas (story and adaptation), Decla Dunning (adaptation), John Huston (uncredited) and Orson Welles (uncredited); Cinematography: Russell Metty; Music: Brownislaw Kaper; Producer: Sam Spiegel; Studio: International Pictures/RKO
Cast: Orson Welles (Franz Kindler/Professor Charles Rankin), Edward G. Robinson (Mr. Wilson), Loretta Young (Mary Longstreet Rankin), Philip Merivale (Judge Adam Longstreet), Richard Long (Noah Longstreet), Konstantin Shayne (Konrad Meinike), Byron Keith (Dr. Jeffrey Lawrence), Billy House (Mr. Potter), Martha Wentworth (Sara)
As amazing as it is to consider, at the time that Orson Welles made The Stranger in 1946, he was viewed as something of a financial black hole. Viewing it from the 21st century, it’s easy to just look at the fact that at this point in his career he had already directed two of the most celebrated films in the history of American cinema – Citizen Kane in 1941 and The Magnificent Ambersons just a year later. Although critical successes (which in fact have done nothing but increase in stature over time) neither of them were particularly successful at the box office. Naysayers argue that he was thus forced into making a film like The Stranger, with the explicit goal of producing a picture that would turn a profit. While that may certainly be the case, that shouldn’t be viewed as too great a knock. It still has one of the greatest directors of all time both behind and in front of the camera, teaming up with the peerless Edward G. Robinson. It might not be Welles at his best, but few films from any director stand up against the onetime boy wonder at his peak.
The story is intriguing, if lacking a bit in believability. Nazi hunter Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is an investigator for the United Nations who is on the trail of fugitive war criminal Franz Kindler. Kindler managed to escape Germany at the end of the war and has effectively taken on the new identity of Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) in the United States, taking a job as a professor and marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Determined to locate Kindler, Wilson has the ingenious idea of releasing one of his former compatriots and then following him to his prey. When the man he is following turns up dead before he can identify the true Kindler, Wilson realizes that more detective work will be necessary to unearth the fugitive. Many tension-filled sequences ensue, which I’ll leave unsaid for those that haven’t seen it.
The lead performances are as good as one would expect from titans like Robinson and Welles. I know that there are many people that are not fans of Welles the actor, but I most certainly _am_. I thought he was outstanding in Kane, is outstanding here, and would go on to top them all as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil. Certainly, his role here as Professor Rankin is the least of those three, but it is a satisfying performance. Rankin is not the towering magnetic presence of Charles Foster Kane or the memorable curmudgeon that is Quinlan. Here, Welles has to use facial expressions, tone of voice, and other clever tricks to establish Rankin as the devious war criminal Wilson suspects him to be. As for Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson… well, Robinson is all over this countdown, so his credentials are well established. I will say, though, that few can play the cunning investigator as well as Robinson.
The believability factor comes into play with the complete naïveté of Rankin’s wife Mary (Loretta Young). Perhaps such a literal reading of the character is beside the point, as I have seen it hypothesized that the character was simply meant to symbolize the dangers that can creep even into small town America. Either way, the character was not the equal of Welles’ and Robinson’s roles.
Throughout it all, though, anyone watching knows that they are watching an Orson Welles film. The minor visual flourishes and shots are familiar to anyone who is a fan. The knock that this is Welles at his most conventional is reasonable, but regardless it is still Orson Welles. That’s enough.