Stranger, The (1946): Orson Welles Most Conventional Film

the_stranger_posterOrson Welles’s second contribution to small-town movies in the 1940s, after The Magnificent Ambersons, was The Stranger

The film, one of the more conventional Welles had made, was based on Victor Trivas’s story and Anthony Veiller’s script; John Huston and Welles received no credit for their work.

Harper, Connecticut, is a seemingly peaceful college town, but, in actuality, it serves as a hiding place for war criminals. Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), a Nazi fugitive, who lives under the disguised identity of Professor Charles Rankin, is joined by his colleague Konrad Meineke (Konstantin Shayne), who still believes in the ideals of Nazism. Meineke’s escape from jail was engineered by the determined government agent Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), hoping to trail him to his superiors.

 

the_stranger_1_wellesA taut, if conventional, narrative, The Stranger is a cat-and-mouse game, set during the last days of a war criminal’s life. The movie shows the irrationality and fear that invade–and almost destroy–a calm New England town.

The narrative is strategically situated on Rankin’s wedding day to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), a prominent society lady, whose father is a Supreme Court Justice. This marriage, the last phase in his assimilation into American life, will finally put Rankin’s mind at ease.

There are a number of outsiders in The Stranger.

On the most explicit level, the obvious stranger is Franz, an unwanted element, a man invading the most peaceful of settings, a calm town, and the most sacred of institutions, the school and church; one of Franz’s obsessive hobbies is to repair old church clocks. But detective Wilson also plays an outsider: His sudden arrival sets in motion events that throw the ordinary town–and the orderly relationships of the Longstreet family–out of balance.

the_stranger_2_wellesFew of the characters are in fact ordinary small-town residents. Mr. Potter (Billy House), for example, is ordinary by occupation, the proprietor of the local grocery story. But he has dark sides: he cheats at checkers and, prejudiced against strangers he is too susceptible to conspiracies.

The relationship between Franz and Mary is strange too: They declare love for each other, but there is no indication of intimacy or familiarity. Mary gradually realizes how little she knows her husband; she gets to know him through shocking, unpredictable, outbursts of violence (one against their dog).

the_stranger_3_wellesShot in black and white, The Stranger uses the stylistics of film noir. It is also influenced by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in its treatment of the duality in human nature; here, in the motif of the double. Familial (and familiar) scenes are juxtaposed with scenes conveying fear and suspicion.

The French director Francois Truffaut has pointed out that the sequence in which Welles saws the ladder rings in the church (to kill his wife) was lifted from Shadow of a Doubt, wherein Uncle Charlie saws the staircase so that his suspecting niece would fall to her death.

Nature, represented by the town’s beautiful forest, becomes the scene of the crime, where Rankin hides the body of his Nazi friend. Just before committing the crime, Rankin runs into his students who are playing in the forest.

The sharp cut from the joyful boys to the fearful Rankin conveys effectively the dual use of nature. The town’s river, a place for fishing, becomes the meeting place of Wilson and Mary’s brother, where they plan their moves against the professor.

The church, ordinarily a sacred and unifying symbol, becomes the locale for Rankin’s scheme against his wife and, later, of his own death. In the original script, Rankin committed suicide, but in the film, to make it more dramatic and cinematic, he gets impaled on the bronze sword of the old clock; Rankin is killed by the object he likes the best.

Welles’s hardcore fans dislike The Stranger, because it’s a conventional, linear narrative film, and rather “simple” in theme and characterization–compared to his previous and lter works.

But this was precisely the point: Welles wanted to prove that he could direct a more typical Hollywood film and bring it in on time and under budget.  Indeed, the commercial appeal of The Stranger surpassed the combined grosses of Welles’s more original films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

While Anthony Veiller was credited with the screenplay, it was rewritten by Welles and John Huston. Disputes occurred during editing between producer Sam Spiegel and Welles.

Detailed Plot: Structure

In 1946, Mr. Wilson (Robinson) of the United Nations War Crimes Commission is searching for Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler (Welles), a war criminal who has erased all evidence and disappeared.

Kindler has assumed a new name and identity, Charles Rankin, as a prep school teacher in a small town. He has married Mary Longstreet (Young), the all-American daughter of Supreme Court Justice, Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale).

Wilson releases Kindler’s former associate Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), hoping the man will lead him to Kindler. Wilson follows Meinike to Harper, CT, but loses him before the later meets with Kindler.

When Kindler/Rankin and Meinike do meet, Meinike, who is repentant, begs Kindler to confess to his crimes, but Kindler, fearing exposure, strangles Meinike.

Wilson has long deduced that Rankin must be Kindler, but he has no hard proof.  Only Mrs. Rankin knows that Meinike came to meet her husband. To get her to admit this, Wilson convinces her that her husband is a criminal–before Rankin decides to eliminate the threat to him by killing her.

Rankin’s pose begins to unravel when Red, the family dog, discovers Meinike’s body. To protect his secret, Rankin poisons Red.

Mary Rankin begins to suspect her husband, but she is too blinded by love to see the facts. She is torn between her desire to learn the truth about him, and the idea of helping him create his new life.

Unfazed, Wilson shows her graphic footage of Nazi concentration camps, and explains how Kindler-Rankin developed the idea of genocide.

However, it is not until Mary discovers Rankin’s plot to kill her does she finally break down. In a tense moment, she dares Rankin to kill her. Rankin tries to, but is prevented by Wilson and Mary’s brother Noah. Pursued by them, he flees into a church belfry, and falls to his death.

 

Cast

Orson Welles as as Franz Kindler/Professor Charles Rankin

Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson

Loretta Young as Mary Longstreet Rankin

Philip Merivale as Judge Adam Longstreet, Mary’s father

Richard Long as Noah Longstreet, Mary’s brother

Konstantin Shayne as Konrad Meinike

Byron Keith as Dr. Jeffrey Lawrence

Billy House as Mr. Potter

Nartha Wenworth as Sara