Tuesday, January 19, 2010

#92: The Stranger (Orson Welles, 1946)

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.


  1. Dave, Welles was still a major celebrity at this point and probably the closest he ever was to being a movie star in the wake of Jane Eyre, but none of that guarantees one a directing job. As a progressive he probably did bring some enthusiasm to a project that emphasizes the persistence of the fascist menace, so Stranger shouldn't be dismissed as entirely impersonal. You note its flaws correctly but you're probably also right to have it on your list. It's not as bad as the worst parts of Lady From Shanghai, but doesn't come close to that film's better moments.

  2. The clocktower sequence at the end is classic. I would have to agree with Samuel Wilson, though that it doesn't approached teh better moments of LADY, but I've always liked THE STRANGER more than most. It's implausible, but a fine suspence yarn, which gives us an excellent performance from Welles (always a treat) and as you note here in your excellent appraisal, another unique turn from Edward G. Robinson. I'm rather amazed that there may be some non-admirers of Welles The Actor out there, as he is an actor par excellence. His voice alone was seemingly made for such a venture. It's far from Welles' greatest film, but it's still an unforgettable achievement, and placement on this countdown is to be applauded.

  3. This was an okay movie, but then again I can watch admirable Mr. Welles in absolutely anything (even in bit parts in crappy stuff like the French movie "Austerlitz"). I might even venture to say that I like Welles-actor more than Welles-director (but I must admit I still don't know enough about his "minor" directorial works). And I definitely prefer Edward G. Robinson in the roles of "good guys" (same goes for Mr. Bogart).

  4. We're all pretty much on the same page here. The lead performances are good, as is to be expected from actors the caliber of Welles and Robinson. It's far from a perfect movie, but at its finest moments it is outstanding - in particular, the ending clock tower sequence that Sam mentions is a highlight.

  5. I can't add more than what has already been said. I like this film and agree the clocktower sequence is classic Welles. Good work by the cast. Robinson is quirky here, reminding me a bit of his role in "Double Indemnity" CLassic capsule review Dave.

    I wrote about this film back in 2008. Hope you don’t mind but I posted a link if anyone if interested.


  6. I saw this a few years ago and was disappointed. I loved the premise - Nazi hiding in small New England town in postwar years - and the sense of place Welles initially evoked. But eventually I felt it lacked tension or suspense - that "believability" quality you describe, though to be honest I can't remember the specifics of why I felt this - and the rest of the film felt flat to me. I do know a lot of people who like it, however.

    And count me among the huge fans of Welles the actor.

  7. Just saw The Stranger on TCM two or three weeks ago and really liked it. As far as Welles' 1940's output goes, I much prefer it to The Lady from Shanghai, which I thought was nonsense.

    Of course, it's still not on the level of one of his later masterpieces like The Trial or F for Fake but, still, it's highly enjoyable.

    Other great films about runaway Nazis: Schlesinger's Marathon Man, and Norman Jewison's The Statement (2003) with Michael Caine.

  8. John - Please feel free to post links to any of the films that are in this countdown... I know that I've missed some of your stuff that was posted prior to me entering the blogosphere

    MovieMan - "Believability" is the main problem with the film, but I still think it's an entertaining mystery.

    Adam - Thanks for stopping by. I think that The Lady from Shanghai has some impressive high points. I haven't seen The Statement, though, I'll have to investigate that one. Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Anytime Welles cranks into a monologue, as he does in the dinner scene and then in the ferris wheel scene in The Third Man, he has me completely. He is mesmerizing when he gets the floor.

  10. I agree on many of the comments, but still feel that the characters are not very believable in their actions - this makes the story become more of a highly symbolic farce at one point. I even read it for satire: