I’ve always admitted I have a thing for Orson Welles, and what is better than a very handsome, sinister Orson Welles starring in the noirish post-World War II thriller “The Stranger?” Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson round out the cast in this 1946 film, which Welles also directed.
The movie opens with Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator with the United War Crimes Commission who has been trailing a known war criminal, Meinike. Meinike was an old associate of another Naxi war criminal, Franz Kindler. Kindler (Orson Welles) has completely reinvented himself, working as a preparatory school teacher by the name of Dr. Charles Rankin, and he has just married Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme
Court justice. Wilson is able to follow Meinike to the small town in Connecticut where Kindler is hiding, but Meinike evades him before meeting Kindler.
Meinike comes to Kindler’s house to meet with him, and he is greeted by Kindler’s wife, since Kindler isn’t at home. He eventually finds Kindler in the woods near the house and begs Kindler to turn himself in to be held accountable for his crimes, but Kindler strangles him and conceals the body.
During this time, Wilson has been slowly putting the clues from his investigation together and very strongly suspects that Rankin is Kindler. Soon after, Meinike’s body is discovered, and Kindler begins to make a mad scramble to keep his old life a secret and maintain a hold on his new life.
He even goes so far as to start gaslighting his wife, since she was the one who met Meinike at the door of their house and could incriminate him. Mary begins to unravel from the secrets she is keeping, even after she finds out her new husband is an escaped war criminal. The tension builds as Kindler grows more desperate, Mary descends further into madness, and Wilson begins to close in, all leading to an unexpected denouement.
Welles tackles several topics in this movie, one of which is the fear of the remnants of the Nazi regime on American shores. While Nazism and its adherents were very evil indeed, the war against them was fought an ocean away. And since the war was over and the Nazi regime was ended, there were no more Nazis, which was very much a false assumption. With the new wave of immigrants coming in from post-war Europe, it would be very easy for someone to slip into a new life just as Kindler did. Welles plays on the American public’s xenophobia, because who really knows what kind of life an immigrant might have led before coming to America?
The noir feel of the film also adds to the lingering fears of Nazism that many people still had. Welles makes good use of the contrast between light and shadow, conveying that you don’t really know who people are underneath what they choose to show you. Kindler is charming and erudite on the surface, but throughout the film, he shows more of a his cruel, ruthless side. This is one of the things that drives Mary into madness, because the man she thought she married is really a different person. The growing use of shadow over light in the film is almost a representation of her mind as she begins to come apart, and as she begins to realize that the only person who can save her — Mr. Wilson — is the only person who will also shatter the life that she has tried to create.
Moreover, Welles makes no bones about using the story to make a point about fascism. We see a microcosm of it in the Rankin/Kindler marriage. Kindler becomes the totalitarian authority in the marriage, and Mary, determined to preserve what she has, obeys his direction even though she knows in her heart that what he’s doing is wrong. Mary doesn’t want to give up the identity of being a married woman, of being Mrs. Rankin, much as those who would follow fascism don’t want to give up their perceived cultural identity. Mary’s downward spiral into madness is symbolic of what can happen to an individual who is overtaken by fascism: they slowly lose their sense of self, or else they are considered expendable. Many of the lines in the movie were taken from the points that Welles made in his New York Post column about fascism and Nazism, and even direct quotes were used.
One thing that I’ve asked myself during the last few times I have watched this is what Welles would make of America today and some of the shenanigans going on in our government. No doubt he would write prolifically about it, probably on a blog or even in a newspaper or magazine. And no doubt there would be many who would dismiss his words as more “liberal propaganda,” when really, he would be a voice of reason. To be honest, I think he would be horrified by our politics right now, but remember, he lived through McCarthyism. He could probably handle it. And how? By making a movie about it, by making people think, because really, that’s one of the things he wanted his films to do.
And after all of this, next week, I think it’s time for some Hitchcock.