Stranger, The (1946): Orson Welles Directs and Co-Stars with Loretta Young in WWII Thriller

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. 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.