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The Stranger (1946)

by on 2011/03/22

In high school, I was rather taken with Albert Camus’ existentialist novel, L’Etranger, variously translated as The Outsider or, more literally, The Stranger. So it was with great disappointment I sat in the Cinematheque theatre, years later. I had expected Orson Welles’ The Stranger to be something it was decidedly not . . . Citizen Camus, perhaps.

Instead, this one tells a tale of Wilson (Double Indemnity’s Edward G. Robinson), a postwar Nazi hunter employed by an Allied commission to punish war criminals. He tracks an infamous — but anonymous — subject, Franz Kindler (Citizen Kane’s Orson Welles), to Harper, Connecticut. There, Kindler poses as a professor, Charles Rankin, intending to marry the politically positioned Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young).

My overriding response throughout was reminiscence, specifically of Alfred Hitchcock. The Stranger plays like an oddly similar inversion of Shadow of a Doubt. Instead of a suspected criminal seeking refuge in a small town, here the visitor must ferret out one already entrenched. (Ironically, Shadow’s suspect was none other than Joseph Cotten, who would later rejoin Welles in The Third Man).

I had mixed feelings about Welles, though. Like John Wayne (They Were Expendable) and Marlon Brando, I have considerable difficulty in seeing the part for the player. His mannered tone is a good fit for a European trying to disguise an accent, but his barely restrained irrational outbursts betray him. He does a good job at gradually losing his composure, devolving with time and tension. I felt frustrated, however, the people around him didn’t notice what I found obvious.

Even before a crucial speech, delivered over a dinner party, his mannerisms and motives are suspicious from the start. He is a recent arrival to a closed community, infiltrating a family which doesn’t completely accept him. His suspicious behaviour screams “guilty”. His intense discipline, rudeness, and paranoia exist long before he begins killing animals and sketching swastikas.

For me, the most interesting character was Loretta Young. Her Mary has the terrifying burden of devolving from an independent woman to a subjugated apologist. As the clues build up in Wilson’s Columbo-like quest, she lies to herself only slightly more convincingly than she does to the investigators. This imperfect conviction gradually cracks, and watching that disintegration is one of the movie’s greatest pleasures.

Still, as a widely lauded film noir, the rewards are less than clear. Moral ambiguity takes a back seat to righteousness. The town of Harper is no urban gangland, and its night life remains too quiet by far. Unusual angles and shadow-play are drowned by more workmanlike conventions, often flooded in broad daylight.

I’ve yet to see noir defined by its popularity. Which may be why this release was both the most financially successful of Orson Welles’ efforts, as well as his own personal least favourite. Did studio interference scuttle another would-be Citizen Kane? (They notoriously tampered with The Magnificent Ambersons and, later, Touch of Evil.) For while The Stranger is no failure as serviceable entertainment, it leaves me struggling with a sense of je ne sais noir.

* * *

Full movie (public domain) available here:

Not rated, but contains disturbing scenes and violence

95 minutes

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