The Stranger (1946) should represent a turning point in director Orson Welles’s career. When 1946 came around he had finished his crowning achievement Citizen Kane (1941), made thanks to an unprecedented deal at the time, which saw the film industry effectively grant Welles full control of his film.
Following Kane, he sadly suffered from studio interference on his next project The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). This however did not to deter Welles, who was determined to push on with his own brand of filmmaking, full of camera innovation, once again making his presence felt both behind and in front of the camera, as he once again takes the role of actor and director.
The Stranger casts Welles in a villainous role as former prominent Nazi Franz Kindler, who changed his name to Charles Rankin when he fled to the USA after the war. Kindler has managed to evade the authorities up to this point and is now settled in the US and about to marry his fiancée, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), who has no knowledge of his dark past at the concentration camps in Europe.
Edward G. Robinson plays a wonderful role as investigator Mr. Wilson, who has come to Connecticut on a vague lead that Kindler is hiding there. Robinson plays a warmer version of his portrayal of Barton Keyes in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), he is always inquisitive, but quiet and steady unlike Keyes.
What follows then is a gradual game of cat and mouse, as Mr Wilson tries to discern whether the suspicious Rankin is in fact Kindle, while Kindler tries his best to maintain the facade and throw the investigator of his trail.
The event that really kick-starts the film comes rather unexpectedly when the mysterious man, who was closely tailed by Wilson earlier in the film, reveals himself to be Konrad Meinike, a fleeing Nazi. He meets up with Kindler who insists they have their discussion in the woods away from prying eyes. It quickly materialises during the discussion between the friends that Meinike no longer holds his extreme Nazi views and has found religion. Upon hearing the news, it tears at Kindler and coupled with the news that Meinike has been tailed, causes Kindler to kill Meinike in brutal fashion by strangulation. It is at this point that we realise that Rankin is Kindler and he is still as cold as he has always been.
As Wilson closes in on Kindler a great scene plays out at a dinner party hosted by Mary, with both Kindler and Wilson in attendance. After idle conversation has subsided, politics is discussed at the table, with two rather strong opposing views from Wilson and Kindler, unable to hold back his ideology. We notice from the two character’s body language, that they both begin to suspect the identity of one another and play a deadly game of verbal chess across the dinner table, alongside hapless guests.
Welles knows that cinema is all about the subtlety and following the success of the dinner party scene, later in the film, Kindler is forced to lie to his wife about his true identity. However we do not see Kindler’s face as he delivers his untruths, just his nervous hands as they gesticulate overzealously. For us, he is obviously lying and unable to hide it, but these clues are uselessly wasted on a character that seems to deny the truth every time it slaps her in the face.
Another notable example of Welles’s nuance is in a phone booth scene. Here we see both personas at work, while speaking with his wife he is Charles Rankin, but he can never shut Kindler out completely, as he speaks he draws a swastika on the pad in the booth. Upon realising what he has done subconsciously, he violently scribbles out his drawing and steadies himself. In a simple drawing Welles has shown just how unstable Kindler is, as he clings to his new identity and existence.
Despite the wonderful building tension the film comes to a rather abrupt close on the colossal clock tower in the town square. The showdown between Kindler and Wilson is rushed and squandered, whilst being far too predictable. The credits begin to role while the resolution still seems to be taking shape, causing us to wonder whether this is yet another example of studio interference in Welles’s work.
As mentioned above, Welles follows on from Citizen Kane by continuing his experimentation with the camera and light. He is largely able to do this thanks to his teaming with cinematographer Russell Metty, who he would later recall, to great success, in Touch of Evil (1958).
Throughout the film Welles camera is on the move, whether that be on the dolly, crane or handheld. Welles takes extra care to balance his frames, seeking perfect symmetry and depth, with the foreground, middle-ground and background stocked.
Together with Metty, Welles takes his use of the camera further by unlocking visual meaning with movement. One such example of this is when Kindler is playing draughts with the hotel owner. As the hotel owner makes his move the camera tilts up from over the shoulder of Welles, he also follows it up with his head, to the shelf above the owner containing the briefcase of the mysterious traveller. This joint act of character and camera alerts us to what Kindler is thinking, we become him and want to take a look inside too.
In addition to Welles’s mastery of the camera in The Stranger, his use of lighting should not be forgotten. From the opening of the picture, Welles creates an intriguing beautiful noir setting, full of shadow play on the walls of the streets, as mysterious figures follow one another. The deep looming shadows in the night foreshadow The Third Man (1949), also starring Welles.
The most significant use of light is the deep chiaroscuro used throughout the narrative. Welles uses the deep shadows on the wall in the early stages of the film to conceal the identity of his characters, with props also working in tandem with this, later the lighting graduates as a tool for tension.
The two scenes which display the chiaroscuro lighting perfectly are reversals of each other towards the end of the picture. In the first, Kindler approaches his wife, asleep in bed, all we see is his towering shadow on the wall creeping towards her menacingly, like the first murder scene in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). This is then perfectly reversed when Mary turns on her new husband and confronts him about his past, this time she appears in shadow and approaches the cowering Kindler. Welles uses the shadow as the definition of power in the film.
Shadows are also used during key conversions in the film. Welles’s slices the characters faces up with piercing jagged shadows. The characters appear deformed and warped, as if part of some kind of nightmare. Welles did this to display the inner feelings of the characters visually for the audience, like the German Expressionists had done in the 1920s.
In conclusion, The Stranger is an important Welles film, seeing him depart from the epic nature of Kane and focus on a relatively small and tight narrative, which deals with large and relevant themes and messages, such as genocide. Welles continues his inventive work with both the camera and light, which truly sets him apart from the other directors of the period, especially when you consider that in addition to directing his pictures he often played the lead as well.
The film builds great tension in novel and unique visual ways, but unfortunately suffers from a rushed and bland ending, which was perhaps down to the studio. It doesn’t then come as a total surprise that Welles considered The Stranger to be his worst film in his career. Although the film is not as tight as Kane, the film succeeds in many areas and was in fact Welles greatest success at the box office in his career on its initial release in 1946, still remaining a great experience for audiences today.