Thursday 16 February 2012

1,001 Films: "The Stranger" (1946)

At a point in time when America was just starting to get het up about the possibility of Reds under its beds, Orson Welles - ever the radical's radical - went the other way and came up with a B-movie that proposed the country faced a greater threat from fascists in its midst. In The Stranger, Edward G. Robinson's pipe-smoking, clock-obsessed Wilson, an investigator in the Allied War Crimes Commission, is put on the trail of one Franz Kindler, an architect of the Final Solution who apparently escaped justice at the end of WWII and moved to a peaceful town in Connecticut. Posing under the name Charles Rankin (Welles), he's engineered the perfect cover for himself, marrying a judge's daughter (Loretta Young) and teaching history - albeit German history - at the town's liberal-arts college. The town is just small enough for the antagonists to keep bumping into one another at the grocery store and over afternoon tea, causing Rankin to get hot under his assumed collar about the body he's just buried in the woods.

Working outside the studio system (not entirely by choice: Welles had reached the point in his career where he was being cut adrift by even "independents" like RKO), the director was allowed to indulge his fondness for wild, expressionist visual flourishes: there are plentiful extreme close-ups and unusual framings in what now looks like a cheaper, poverty-row approximation of the high style Welles devised for Citizen Kane. The Welles touch is evident in almost every scene: Anthony Veiller's screenplay appears to have been set aside so Rankin can deliver a very Wellesian monologue about the average German's attitude to the wars, while Wilson proves his all-American credentials by quoting Emerson on the nature of crime.

Despite the enduring clocktower finale, The Stranger is probably just a bit too tatty to qualify as truly first-rate work: Robinson's typically tenacious performance is undermined by a throwaway final line that suggests Wilson will be putting his feet up from here on in. (Good news, the film might as well add, for any other Nazis-in-hiding.) Still, it's allowed to be much tougher about then-recent history than any studio production of the time would have been - Robinson shows Young actual footage of the concentration camps in a bid to get her onside, though when she's made aware of her husband's true identity, she seems awfully forgiving of an individual who helped bring about the Holocaust - and there are pleasing narrative touches throughout, such as the way the town's dogs keep being drawn to the woods: an apt illustration of the film's belief that, one way or another, evil will come to be sniffed out.

The Stranger is available on DVD through Network Releasing.

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