Interesting film noir. Orson Welles plays the fugitive Nazi war criminal Kindler (aka Rankin), Edward G. Robinson the detective Wilson, who tracks Rankin to New England, and Loretta Young is Rankin’s new bride, Mary. The supporting cast is rather important to the plot, especially Billy House as the gossipy drugstore proprietor Potter. Mary’s brother Noah (Richard Long) becomes Wilson’s confident and accomplice. The townspeople act as a sort of mob, an ironic comment on the lynch mentality of Nazi supporters. The premise is intriguing, the pacing is taut, and there’s great noir cinematography as well. With all of these elements going for it, though, The Stranger is oddly uneven, mostly because of Welles’ and Young’s performances.
Many critics mention the plot holes; I think these are a function of character flaws which in turn hurt he story’s credibility. Mary is obviously taken in by Rankin. She’s incredibly naive, almost childlike in her devotion to him. That doesn’t prevent her from shooting him at the end, once she’s convinced of his guilt. I can buy that falling in love isn’t the same as knowing someone; in fact, being in love can blind a person to the other’s faults. Still, Rankin isn’t so much as decent to Mary for one minute. In fact, Rankin acts incredibly suspicious and tentative throughout. Even in the wedding scene he wears the incredulous stare that only an uncomfortable person would; it seems as though he’s looking to escape from every scene. And he does disappear a lot–incredibly on their wedding night–when he’s out disposing of his tail and former Nazi underling, Meinike (Konstantin Shayne).
Rankin’s alibi for his dealings with Meinike is pretty good–his nemesis is an blackmailer/avenger from a jilted lover’s family. At the very least, she’s gets some background on her husband, even if it’s made-up. Still, once he’s killed Meinike, why would she stay with him? Even if it’s just a ‘domestic’ murder, as she doesn’t believe Rankin’s Nazi connection until much later, it’s still murder. Mary’s not a gun-moll ‘dame’ of his, she’s his wife, and implicitly respectable. Actually, the brother-of-the-suicidal-lover deal could’ve been stretched out a bit. My alternative premise would make this ex-lover the focus of a strictly revenge/remorse plot. Ditch all the Nazi stuff, and just make Rankin an American guy with a shady past. Might make an interesting psychological study, especially with all the noir atmosphere. What does figure in The Stranger is that the actual brother, Noah, pushes the plot from another direction.
The central idea is the fear of Nazism, even after the war, embodied by the war criminals. What evidence is there, though, that Rankin is Kindler? The death camp footage is definitely chilling, but what ties Rankin to it? There would’ve been photos of semi-prominent Nazis, documentation (i.e., tying Meinike to Kindler) etc., as it’s well known how meticulous the Nazis were about keeping records. Instead, Mary is supposed to take Wilson’s word for it all; strangely, everyone else, including Noah, believes Wilson implicitly. Not to mention the fact that Wilson’s a stranger in a small town.
The ending is admittedly a bit over-the-top. But it fits with the movie’s dark tone. As others have said, scenes, actions, and characters are exaggerated in a nightmarish way. The clock tower denouement caps off these tendencies: nothing could look more mythic and folk-tale authentic than getting impaled by a gargoyle’s sword. Other visual elements are memorable: especially the silhouettes and stark shadows on walls, and Wilson’s mottled reflection in the stairwell. The Stranger also poses the duality that both Rankin and Wilson are strangers, as well as antagonists. It’s as though ‘domestic tranquillity’ can’t be restored until the outsiders are dealt with; Wilson, having eliminated Rankin, now becomes superfluous.
The Stranger is entertaining, and has several captivating scenes, but doesn’t flesh out its characters enough to be outstanding. 7/10.