Orson Welles is perhaps the most influential figure in cinema’s history, but despite this accomplishment the director was an outcast from Hollywood. Welles spent his entire career fighting against studio executives but unfortunately he was never was a credible name for box office success: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil, all heavily praised by contemporary critics, were flops. The Stranger is an exception; it’s the only movie Welles made that was profitable, yet film scholars today rarely talk about The Stranger. Welles himself dismissed the project, saying “The Stranger is the worst of my films . . . There is nothing of me in the picture.”
While it’s no Citizen Kane (how many films are?), The Stranger is much better than what history would suggest. A 1946 film noir, The Stranger starts with Konrad Meinke (Konstantin Shayne), a Nazi criminal, released from prison by Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson, echoing his role from Double Indemnity), a member of the United Nations War Crimes Commission in hopes that he will lead him to Franz Kindler (Welles), who was responsible for some of the most deplorable acts done under the Third Reich. Kindler has erased all parts of his previous identity and has moved to Harper, Connecticut under the name Charles Rankin, where he prepares to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.
Produced by Sam Spiegel, The Stranger can easily be identified as Welles at his most mainstream. While like Welles’ other pictures it centers on a corrupt individual, its story fits in more with the wave of post-WWII films rather than his experimental pieces. Which is not to say that The Stranger isn’t a Welles film at heart. Fans of the filmmaker will glance and marvel at his use of shadows and light throughout the duration of the picture (often times the characters are given the only light in frame, a fascinating effect) and the movie’s several tracking shots are very impressive, certainly sharing much in common with the director’s future Touch of Evil.
As with Touch of Evil and in many other pictures, Welles is adept on screen as he is off-screen. As a performer, Welles always hit the right dramatic cues and notes along with his booming and soothing voice. As Franz Kindler, Welles uses his acting ability to switch quickly from sympathetic to fearsome. Robinson’s performance is commendable as well; while Welles had wanted Agnes Moorehead for the role, an idea that would have resulted into an entirely different movie altogether, Robinson feels appropriate for the character. Much of the movie is a battle between these two actors’ presence that no one else in the picture can attain the same charisma, the film’s only weakness. That, however, doesn’t detract from the picture overall.
Although shunned by most Welles fans, The Stranger is a remarkably solid piece of entertainment in the director’s filmography that deserves more praise from critics.