The Stranger: Orson Welles’ lone box office hit may be his least personal film but it’s still a terrific Noir thriller with Welles in top form as actor & director

The Stranger(1946) was Orson Welles’ third (finished) feature film as a director, and his first Film Noir. Though this is the least artistically impressive, and most conventionally mainstream, of all of Welles’ films, it’s a superbly crafted genre piece, and was a box office success.

Being the only bonafide box office hit that Orson Welles had ever directed, “The Stranger (1946)” is usually considered to be one of Welles’ minor works; something that he did purely to stay alive in the commerce-driven Hollywood, and to prove to the powers that be that he can make a conventional American mainstream film- within budget and schedule. But Despite Welles himself claiming that there’s very little of him in the film, the film still bristles with the classic Wellesian touches in its visuals and in its theme. When Welles began work on “The Stranger” in 1945, he was already a has-been in Hollywood. He had arrived with much fanfare in town in 1939, at the age of 24, as the king of Radio and theater; with terms like Wunderkind and boy-genius routinely used to describe him. He also got an unprecedented contract from RKO studios, which guaranteed him total creative control of his movies- something that was not granted even to veteran directors, leave alone someone who has never made a film before. But all the heat around Welles cooled down once his first two films- “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”- turned to be box office duds. Today, these films are considered classics, and the greatest films of all time, but back then, the lack of commercial success of these films lead to Welles becoming a pariah in Hollywood. It also didn’t help that he had a penchant for getting into controversies: like the battle with William Randolph Hearst over “Citizen Kane” that almost brought down the studio; or his ill-fated attempt at a documentary about Brazil called “It’s all True” at enormous cost, which was supposed to be a tourism-boosting travelogue, but ended up as a political document about class discrimination and racism; and hence, never saw the light of the day. These cinematic excursions also branded him a profligate, irresponsible and commercially unreliable filmmaker. RKO terminated his contract, and Welles couldn’t make another movie for 3 years. And when finally an offer to direct came to him, it was from an upstart independent producer by the name of Sam Spiegel (who then went around with the moniker “S.P. Eagle”). Of course, in time, Spiegel would go on to become a towering figure in international film producing scene- making huge epics like “Lawrence of Arabia.” To get this picture made, Welles had to agree to a disadvantageous contract, in which he didn’t have ‘final cut’; the production company’s chosen editor, Ernest Nims, will have final say on what stays and what come out of the finished film. Nims was a typical studio editor, who believed that nothing should be in a movie that did not advance the story. And since most of the good stuff in Welles’ films are not stuff that advances the story, but bravura set-pieces that add layers to the surface text, it was natural that much of what’s Wellsian in the film would come out. Welles’ cut was 115 minutes long, while the finally released cut of the film was just 95 minutes. The scenes that Nims cut out of the film were the ones specifically written by Welles to pad up the prologue of the film that would have transferred it from a mere genre piece to an artistic, multi-layered, non-linear social drama; maybe that’s the reason Welles felt that the film didn’t bear his stamp. But in the form it exists today, it’s a well crafted suspense thriller where serious political themes merely forms an interesting backdrop for the unfolding story, rather than an artistic film that makes strong political commentary.

“The Stranger” was a film made in the political phase of Welles’ life- around this time he had actively campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt, and he was seriously thinking about running for senate- and it definitely reflects his political views more strongly than any of his other films. The story takes place after the end of World War II. Edward G. Robinson plays a government official named Mr. Wilson. He is in charge of the Allied War Crime commission. He is looking for an elusive war criminal named Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Kindler is supposed to be main brain behind ‘the final solution’- the Nazi plan for the mass annihilation of Jews.. There is no evidence, not even a photograph, of Kindler existing- except some knowledge of a hobby of his, “that almost amounts to a mania: clocks“. To find Kindler, Wilson releases Kindler’s former associate, Meinike (Konstantin Shayne). Meinike inadvertently leads Wilson to the small town of Harper in Connecticut. There, Kindler is hiding out at an all boys school as a professor named Charles Rankin. Meinike arrives on Rankin’s wedding day: He is getting married to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a liberal Supreme Court justice, Adam Longstreet. Before coming to Rankin’s place, Meinike had spotted Wilson following him, and had knocked him unconscious. After Meinike finally locates Rankin near the school, a nervous, tense Rankin orders him to the woods. There, Rankin informs Meinike that he is marrying Mary, the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, only because she is the perfect cover for him. When Meinike, who claims to have found God, reveals that he was followed to Harper, Rankin chokes him to death and buries him under a pile of leaves. Wilson, meanwhile, revives and, as Mary and Rankin are being married, connects himself with the local town people, especially drugstore owner Mr. Potter (Billy House). Potter knows just about everything that goes on with everyone in this New England town, and over a game of checkers, Wilson gets acquainted with him well enough to narrow down his list of suspects to Rankin. Wilson’s interest is also piqued when he hears that Rankin diligently fixes the 400 year old, ornate church clock that has been out of service for more than two centuries.

Posing as an antique dealer and clock enthusiast, Wilson ingratiates himself into the Longstreet household, and one night has dinner with the whole family, which apart from Mary and her father, also includes Mary’s brother, Noah, and her new husband, Rankin. During dinner, Rankin speaks disparagingly about Germany and convinces Wilson of his innocence. Wilson had almost let Rankin off the hook, when suddenly he wakes up in the middle of the night to reconsider a remark made by Rankin about Karl Marx being not a “German” because he was a Jew. Wilson realizes that only a Nazi would say this, so he decides to stay on and continue investigating Rankin. At the same time, Rankin goes to check up on Meinike’s body in the woods and is upset when Red, Mary’s dog, begins to dig at the site. Rankin ends up killing the dog to protect the secret. The next day, Wilson goes fishing with Noah and, sensing that the teenager dislikes Rankin, asks him to help in his investigation- Noah agrees to find out everything that Mary did on her wedding day. When Noah discovers Red dead from poison, Wilson deduces that he was killed by Rankin because he was digging at Meinike’s grave, and a search is instigated. Realizing that his crime is about to be discovered, Rankin tells Mary that he had to kill the blackmailing Meinike to protect her from scandal. Still confident of her husband’s goodness, Mary insists on escaping with him, even as Meinike’s body is being uncovered by the townspeople. Wilson, however, is determined that she should know the truth about Rankin and has her father call her to his home. There, he shows her a film containing harrowing images of Nazi concentration camps, and reveals to her the real identity of her husband. Although Mary continues to insist on Rankin’s innocence, Wilson is sure that she understands the situation on a subconscious level and suspects that Rankin will attempt to kill her.

As predicted, Mary begins to unravel emotionally, and Rankin plots to murder her by sawing a step in the church tower ladder and ordering her to meet him there alone. Rankin has a plan draw up by which Mary will be accidentally killed, and he will not be suspected for the murder, as he will be playing Checkers with Potter when the accident happens. But his plans are disturbed by Sara, Mary’s devoted housekeeper, who has been tasked by Mary’s father and Wilson never to let Mary out of the house. Sara feigns a heart attack in order to prevent Mary from going, and Mary asks Noah to notify Rankin that she is going to be late. While Rankin plays checkers with Potter, Noah and Wilson go to the church, where Noah is nearly killed by the sabotaged step, Rankin returns home and is startled to see Mary there. Distraught, Rankin reveals his scheme to a horrified Mary, who, sure that she has caused Noah’s death, orders her husband to kill her. Rankin, however, cannot do the deed and flees to the church tower. Later that night, Mary goes to the church tower to confront Rankin, and on finding him armed, declares her intention to kill him. At that moment, however, Wilson also makes it to the belfry, and a struggle ensues. Mary retrieves Rankin’s gun and shoots him in the shoulder, after which Rankin stumbles onto the clock face and is skewered by one of the clock’s automatons: a lance-wielding iron angel- leading to Rankin falling to his death.

Although it doesn’t come close to Welles’ best work, “The Stranger” is still a taut thriller and much of it looks unmistakably like an Orson Welles film. The concise, suspenseful progression of the plot and the character development are streamlined in the typical studio style, but they’re presented in Welles’ trademark visual style, marked by long takes, deep-focus photography, moody lighting and unusual camera angles. On this film, Welles worked with Cinematographer Russell Metty – who shot some scenes uncredited on “The Magnificent Ambersons” and would work again with Welles on Touch of Evil (1958). Here, Welles and Metty creates, perhaps, the greatest shot in an Orson Welles film: an unbroken 4 minute long take that starts off with Meinike being warmly received by Rankin, and ends with the latter strangling the former to death. It’s a continuously moving shot with lot of dialogue, scenery changes and mood changes; and it’s almost imperceptible, one has to pay close attention to realize that there’s absolutely no cuts in this scene. To protect the integrity of his film, and make sure that Editor Nims has nothing much to cutaway to, Welles shot most of this film in long takes. Other bravura scenes include Wilson following Meinike across the town square; or the scene right after Rankin has murdered Meinike, which takes place in the middle of a game of ‘paper chase’ being played by Rankin’s students in that area- we see Rankin desperately gathering the paper slips and scattering them to divert the students’ trail so that they don’t discover the corpse. Welles ingenuity with light and shadow is reflected in another fantastic scene where Rankin, after having killed the dog, appears nears Mary’s bed as a giant shadow, as if all ready to engulf her, and then the shadow becomes smaller and smaller until his figure emerges as he sits besides a startled Mary.

The climax of the film is also another tour de force, where Rankin’s impalement by the clock’s Iron angel is a symbolic representation of triumph of good over evil. The most creative aspect of the movie is the effective use of the clock tower, both as a plot device and as an idea, along with the related themes of clocks and time. The tense climax makes good use of all of these elements. The principle on which this 400-year-old Habrecht-style clock, consisting of religious automatons, works is that when time comes to strike the hour, the Iron Angel advances with his sword scaring away another automaton, ‘the iron devil’. Obviously, the Nazi Kindler is the devil that has infected Mary and the town, Rankin\Kindler is a fanatic about clocks, repairing them whenever he needs recreation. Kindler manages to repair it so the figures move- he has changed something that has remained constant in the town for so many years. In that regard, the gothic clock represents Kindler- Like Kindler it was brought in from Germany by Mary’s ancestors; and now Kindler is hiding as Rankin in Mary’s family. It’s Kindler’s preoccupation with the clock that finally exposes him as a Nazi. In Welles’ original script, there were far more parallels drawn between the inner workings of the clock and fascist authoritarianism, and hence, Kindler’s obsession with it. The film was also meant to begin like “Citizen Kane”, with Kindler’s death and then the film was supposed to move into a flashback, with a terrific title sequence where the camera goes inside the clock and show its inner-workings. There was also an initial sequence that would have shown that Mary was suffering from Vertigo; this would have made Mary’s final confrontation much more suspenseful than it’s in the film. Alas! all that was not meant to be. Welles obsession with the clock imagery can also be found in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” that came out a couple of years after this film- in the film’s iconic “Cuckoo clock” speech that Welles delivers as Harry Lime, the speech was improvised by Welles on the spot. Also, the Ferris wheel sequences in that film harkens back to the clock tower sequences of this film, especially the comments about people looking ‘like ants’ from high above.

It has been noted that Welles based Kindler on the character of Martin Bormann, the missing deputy to Hitler and leading adviser in his inner circle. However, Bormann (unlike Kindler) was not the creator of the “final solution” – that was Bormann’s rival Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich had been assassinated in 1942, so he was dead and buried years before this story takes place. The assassination of Heydrich is featured in the 1975 WWII thriller, “Operation Daybreak”. One thing that’s not explicitly conveyed through the film is the fact that Kindler/Rankin, by ingratiating himself into the elite New England society and by the virtue of being a Professor, is in a very good position to influence the future leaders of America. So his masquerade is not just a way of protecting himself, but to continue with the propaganda of Nazi theories. It’s a pity that film never shows Rankin in a classroom tutoring the students. It would be very interesting to see how he subtly goes about indoctrinating them into neo-Nazi theories. The only time we get to see him discussing Nazism is at that fateful family dinner where he discounts Marx’s German origin on account of him being a Jew. In the same conversation he goes on to comment about German people’s penchant for war, and how they’re still waiting for another Barbarossa or Hitler. In these scenes, we find Welles at his most political. Obviously, there are lot of layers to this film, and it’s in no way a simple, conventional film as its generic surface makes us to believe. Granted: a lot of great ideas in the film are not fully developed, maybe due to studio pressure, and i guess if Welles was given free reign, he would have created another masterpiece. This had the potential to being even more substantial a work than “Kane” or “Ambersons”, because it has a strong socio-politico-historical dimension that a lot of his films lack. At least, it became a box office hit, but the irony of it is that it didn’t help Welles’ career one bit.

Welles performance as Kindler\Rankin is also right up there with some of his greatest screen performances. This is a more subtle and nuanced performance than his usual high-pitched theatrical acts. He conveys evil through subtle shifts of his eyes and the expressions on his face, as well as the lowering of that beautiful voice. His obsession with fixing the town clock is very significant. Here is a man who needs things to be precise and structured. He wants total control of his environment. There are big ‘acting’ moments, like the murder of Meinike, or when he realizes that Mary is not dead: he loses control and starts screaming, but then, in order to control himself he starts winding her father’s clock in the living room , but ends up breaking it. The most affecting moments in his performance are the most subtle sequences in the film, like the time when he speaks the most sinister line in the film: “Marx is not a German, He’s a Jew”. There’s a throwaway quality to his line delivery as well as his body language, which makes sure that people around him doesn’t take much notice of it, but his contempt for both Marx and Jews comes through very strongly. This is why it slips past Wilson the first time he hears it, but then forces him to come back to it later. Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young are the quintessential Hollywood actors, who practically build their performances around the written text with their predictable histrionics. While Young doesn’t have much to do, except to perfectly fit the character of the nicely brought-up Connecticut Christian girl, Robinson seems to be having a lot of fun playing a positive character for a change, similar to the one he played in Billy Wilder’s Noir classic “Double Indemnity”- the obsessed hunter doggedly pursuing his prey. The cat & mouse game between Robinson and Welles is riveting to watch. Their widely differing acting styles seems to complement each other well.

But the truly interesting performances in the film are given by two of the quintessential, expressionist Wellesian actors: first one is Konstantin Shayne as Konrad Meinike- a bundle of nervous energy, exaggerated expressions and body language- the scene where he keeps repeating “I’m travelling for my Health” is enough to place him along the likes of Everett Sloane and Agnes Moorhead as a true Wellesian performer. The other actor is Billy House as the eccentric storekeeper/checkers hustler, Mr. Potter. House plays Potter as a guy who manages to cheat and defeat even Wilson and Rankin at Checkers. He is someone who knows more about what’s going on with these people, but is very good at keeping things to himself. House turned to be so good an actor that Welles kept on increasing his part, much to the chagrin of Robinson, who felt that House’s character was expanded at his cost. Robinson was already sulking, on account of Welles shooting him from his wrong side- which baffled Welles; he couldn’t fathom that someone (in his words) “as Bulldog ugly as Robinson” would be worried about these things. He had the same issue with Young also, and had to change camera angles and setups to accommodate their “good side”. These were the additional compromises he made, to make sure that film shoot proceeded smoothly. Welles had originally wanted Agnes Moorhead in the role of Mr. Wilson; he though it would have been really interesting to see a spinster chasing a war criminal like Kindler, but Spiegel vetoed this idea too. If he had managed that casting, that would have been a masterstroke. This takes me back to the point i made earlier: that this was a film with the potential of being one of Welles’ greatest, but was unfortunately downsized – due to lack of creative freedom- to just being a topnotch thriller with some great performances and solid direction.

2 thoughts on “The Stranger: Orson Welles’ lone box office hit may be his least personal film but it’s still a terrific Noir thriller with Welles in top form as actor & director

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