Review

  • The Stranger is a little slow to start. Edward G. Robinson, playing a war crimes detective named Wilson, lets loose one of the right-hand men of an important Nazi war criminal named Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) who escaped prison and managed to erase his identity. He was the mastermind behind the concentration camps. No photographs exist of him, and only this goon might know where he is. Wilson tracks the goon to a small town in Connecticut, where Franz Kindler is posing as a history professor about to marry the daughter of an important politician. Immediately the goon disappears, but the professor arouses Wilson's suspicion.

    After the setup is over, The Stranger bolts ahead at a breathless pace. All the clues point to the professor, though there is nothing definitive. When his wife, Mary, finds out (played by Loretta Young), she refuses to believe it. Kindler feeds her a nice lie explaining everything, and she's desperate to believe it. He's not sure that he can trust her.

    Welles pulls a ton of suspense out of the situation. He's so good at creating points of tension out of both the simplest means, like a group of college boys on a paper chase, a dog who won't stop digging in the leaves, or something much more gothic, like the ancient, broken-down clock in the church tower. Kindler was an expert on clocks (which is one of the biggest clues), and when he revives this old monster, an iron angel with a sword chases away the devil and then rings the bell to the hour. To get to the top of the tower, an extraordinarily tall ladder must be climbed. This leads to as much or more suspense as existed in the cognate scenes in Hitchcock's Vertigo. In fact, I'm sure Hitchcock watched and liked this film. Everyone knows he admired Welles' later Touch of Evil, which he mimicked in his own Psycho, so why not this film?

    The acting is quite brilliant as well. We would expect it from Orson Welles, of course. This is actually one of his very best roles. He is amazing at telling believable lies to his wife and friends, but with the dramatic irony in which the audience is in possession, we see the depth and the nervousness and the evil. Edward G. Robinson has a pretty thankless role for a long time, but nearer the end he begins to expand. We cringe when he coldly suggests that Mary is in mortal danger. He is simply great in the climactic scene (which I won't mention except to say that it is one of the best in film history, although some might find it a bit silly). Loretta Young is also great as a naive wife who so desperately wants to be the perfect wife and believe everything her husband says. If this movie were to be remade today, her character would have been developed further psychologically, but what is here is good. She is also great in the climactic sequence.

    Welles' films often have thriller elements, but this is his most thrilling. It's also probably his least philosophical, and almost certainly his most conventional. He made the film as a concession. I think he was allowed to make The Lady of Shanghai in return, which is an even better film than this. That is no matter, though. It's a masterpiece anyway. 10/10.