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Classic Films: "The Stranger"

January 17th, 2003

Orson Welles had hit somewhat of a career wall when he made The Stranger in 1946. The Boy Wonder, who was around 29 when The Stranger was released, had just made what is now considered the best directorial debut of all time, Citizen Kane, in 1941, and the controversial 1942 masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, famous for having been massively butchered by RKO Pictures. The disappointment over studio control of Ambersons forced Welles to prove he could in fact make a good picture within the realms of the studio. And so comes The Stranger, a masterfully executed film-noir thriller that many feel is one of Welles's least personal films but is undeniably filled with the Wonder's unique touches.

Welles also stars as Frans Kindler, one of the men behind the Holocaust who is now living a hidden life in Harper, Connecticut, as Charles Rankin. He's married to Mary (Loretta Young), and teaching at the local boys' school. His new existence is brought to a sudden standstill when one of his old Nazi comrades, Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), pays Kindler a visit. Little do the two know that Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), head of the International Crimes Commission, has released Meinike from prison in hopes that Meinike will lead him to wherever Kindler has been hiding.

Wilson disguises himself as an antiques dealer while in Harper but ultimately forces himself to put trust in Mary's younger brother, Noah (Richard Long), a student of Kindler's. Meinike's presence doesn't go over so well with Kindler and when Meinike prays on his knees in the woods nearby, Kindler strangles and buries him. Events lead to the discovery of the body by Mary's dog and the eventual disposal of the dog by Kindler.

Mary is overcome by fear and there's a virtuoso sequence when Wilson shows Mary a film reel of the Holocaust, drenching both in shadows and an atmosphere of malevolence and dread. All leads to a knockout climax atop the church clock steeple that Welles directs with such clarity and refinement, it comes off as a masterpiece in suspense, a scene Hitchcock himself would be proud of.

The Stranger doesn't have many of the elements that made Welles one of the best filmmakers of all time: the long-focus lensing of Citizen Kane, the character-study in The Lady from Shanghai, and brilliant editing techniques in Touch of Evil. What The Stranger does have in abundance is the ongoing ambience of a quiet, small town engulfed in dark secrets and murder. As with Hitchcock's masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt, both films depict suburban life turned upside-down by a hidden evil and both feature characters as two different forces: Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie, in Shadow, the Merry-Widow Murderer, and his naive niece, also named Charlie (Teresa Wright), the angelic figure of good and happiness. In The Stranger, Kindler is the Nazi criminal and his wife, Mary, the cheerful and pleasant town girl.

The Stranger entangles the viewer in a world of real terrors (the Holocaust), and reel terrors (murder, guns, chases). But it's also an absorbing venture into the crazy mind of serial killer and the sheltered world of an American dream cut deep into ugliness.

Matthew Dalton

January 19, 2003

This is part of a weekly series of reviews of classic films.

Source: The Stranger @ IMDb