Tuesday, May 26, 2009


A patient, pipe-smoking Edward G. Robinson pursues an elusive Nazi war criminal Orson Welles in his third movie set after World War II. This tightly-knit, black and white, film noir thriller co-starring Loretta Young, Richard Long, and Billy House as Mr. Potter. The technical credits are beyond reproach, especially Russell Metty’s first-rate cinematography, Ernest Nims’ evocative editing, and top-flight performances by a uniformly superb cast. No, “The Stranger” (*** out of ****) isn’t as tour-de-force as “Touch of Evil,” but “The Stranger” ranks as one of Welles’ more palatable melodramas with intrigue and atmosphere galore. Anybody that enjoys a gripping cat and mouse nail-biter should find themselves wrapped up in this edgy yarn. It helps considerably that the hero is a rather ordinary fellow blessed with superior intuition that a cunning, cold-blooded villain challenges right up to his comeuppance. Robinson’s mousy detective, Orson Welles’ cornered Nazi war fugitive, and Loretta Young’s deceived wife who stands poised between them make this movie worth watching several times.

According to the Internet Movie Database, “The Stranger” represented the first Hollywood movie to show the infamous Nazi concentration camps. Furthermore, “The Stranger” remains Welles’ only film to make a profit, and the lean, mean, no-nonsense pacing underlines the brilliant simplicity of this film. Welles appears at his least pretentious, creating not only solid, three-dimensional characters with his hero, heroine, and villain, but also conjuring up the conservative mind-set in an entire community in a remote corner of Connecticut, far removed from the outside world. You feel like you’re watching a white-knuckled thriller in the setting of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Ironically, for all its virtues, Welles had little complimentary to say about “The Stranger.” Many sources quote him as saying the “The Stranger” qualifies as “the worst of my films. There is nothing of me in that picture. I did it to prove I could put out a movie as well as anyone else." This alone distinguishes Welles and makes “The Stranger” loom even larger in his oeuvre. Clearly, “The Stranger” isn’t something that you can easily dismiss, even when most copies are public domain prints.

A tireless government investigator, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson of “Little Caesar”), with the Allied War Crimes Commission, Department 12 finds himself at the end of his tether. Wilson has been hot on the trail of a notorious Nazi officer, Franz Kindler, who--in Wilson’s words--evinced “the most brilliant of the Nazi minds” and conceived the theory of genocide, mass depopulation of conquered countries so that regardless of who won the war, Germany would emerge the strongest in Europe, biologically speaking.” Kindler disappeared after the war and destroyed all clues to his identity from Poland and Germany, and nobody has been able to find him. Wilson convinces his reluctant colleagues to release from prison convicted Nazi war criminal Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne of "Vertigo") in hopes that the latter will lead Wilson to Kindler. Wilson is prepared to shoulder the burden of the blame if his plan backfires. Indeed, he is so committed that he smashes his pipe on a table to drive his fanaticism home. Afterward, Wilson repairs the pipe, wrapping tape around the stem, and uses it as if it were none the worse for wear.

Meinike believes that God intervened on his behalf so he could escape from the Allied War Crime captors, and he sets out to find fellow Nazi Franz Kindler. Studio executives slashed about 30 minutes from the film as Meinike searches for Kindler in South America. Welles took issue with their decision to eliminate this part. In all fairness, however, they have accelerated the pace and brought the film to its setting in Harper, Connecticut where most of the action occurs. Sources say that producer Sam Siegel authorized the deletion because that half-hour slowed down the action. Nevertheless, Meinike learns of Kindler’s whereabouts when he obtains picture postcard with the image of a church steeple. Presto, Welles fades to the church in Connecticut and Meinike looks for History Professor Charles Rankin who teaches at the Harper School for Boys.

After he arrives in Harper, Meinike stashes his suitcase at Mr. Potter’s store. Although Potter amounts to little more than a peripheral character, Billy House’s chummy performance makes quite an impression. Largely, it is the way that Potter runs his store. Potter remains seated behind the cash register while his customers serve themselves and then pay him. Occasionally, he lures Wilson and Rankin separately in games of checkers, dons his visor, and beats them. Potter and his method of transacting business is a different as well as distinctive touch in another otherwise fascinating but formulaic film. Anyway, Meinike suspects that he may have been followed and uses gym equipment to knock Wilson unconscious. Meinike visits Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young of “Ladies Courageous”) in his search for Rankin. The meeting between Meinike and Mary turns out to be crucial and Mary discovers later on that not only her life but the life of her husband hangs by the string of that encounter. She directs him to Rankin and the two ex-Nazis meet his deep in the woods so that nobody can see them. Rankin strangles Meinike and conceals the corpse. Welles shows his villainous character seize Meinike by the throat, but then Rankin lowers Meinike behind a large bush and kills him with his bare hands. As the director, Welles supplements the scene with suspense because several college students are playing a paper chase game and cavorting in the woods. Frantically, Rankin scrambles to move the paper trail that is dangerously close to Meinike’s body.

Not long afterward, the cold-blooded Rankin marries Mary Longstreet. Meanwhile, Wilson noses around Harper and masquerades as an antiques dealer compiling a catalog of Paul Revere silver. He meets Mary’s father, liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale of “Adventure”) and receives an invitation to dinner one evening. Wilson suspects Rankin may be the evil Kindler because clocks obsess both men. Furthermore, Rankin has been repairing a church clock that has been inactive for years. During the conversation at the Longstreet residence, Rankin makes a comment that incriminates him in Wilson’s eyes. Rankin makes a disparaging observation about Karl Marx that Wilson initially dismisses. Later, Rankin drives Mary’s dog Red away from digging up the corpse. When Rankin kicks Red, the film cuts to Wilson waking up to the realization that Rankin is Kindler. “Who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew? Earlier, Wilson was prepared to leave Harper, deciding that Rankin was “above suspicion.”

Eventually, Meinike’s body is found and Mary stands between her husband and justice. Wilson enlists the aid of Mary’s brother Noah (Richard Long of “The Big Valley”) and they keep an eye on her. Eventually, they discover the dead dog. Rankin begins to get nervous and concocts a story (not unlike the George Stevens’ movie “A Place in the Sun”) about a boating accident and the accidental death of a girlfriend and how a relative has tracked him down and tries to blackmail. Rankin confides in Mary that he had to kill the blackmailer and convinces her not to aid the authorities. Mary becomes the weakest link in the plot. She really believes that her husband is incapable of having committed heinous acts of genocide. Stoutly, she defends him against his accusers. Rankin realizes that Mary represents a threat so he tries to arrange it so that she will visit him in the church steeple and fall to her death while climbing a ladder to the belfry. Mary’s housekeeper distracts Mary so that she cannot keep her appointment with Rankin while he establishes his alibi by playing checkers with Mr. Potter. Instead, Wilson climbs the ladder and nearly dies. The indefatigable Wilson closes in on Mary. He shows the concentration camp films to both Mary and her father and tries to rattle Mary, but she stands by Rankin.

The biggest flaw in “The Stranger” is how did Rankin arrive in America and acquire a job as a college teacher. Sometime John Huston collaborator Anthony Veiller penned the screenplay that leaves out some important information that occurred during the missing South America scenes, but for the most part, Veiller and other writers who worked on “The Stranger” supply us with most of what we need to know. Veiller wrote “The Night of the Iguana,” “The List of Adrien Messenger,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Beat the Devil” for Huston. Previously, Veiller had contributed his writing skills to Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series. Veiller’s collaborator on “The Stranger” was German born Victor Trivas who received an Oscar nomination for penning the original story that Veiller rewrote as the screenplay. The ending atop the church steeple is a corker!

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