Peter Cowie's THE CINEMA OF ORSON WELLES does not say much in favor of this film. He felt it was a minor work, and in a sense it is. Welles, having failed in Hollywood terms to produce a blockbuster box office success with KANE, AMBERSONS, and IT'S ALL TRUE, had demonstrated more success as a film actor (JANE EYRE in the 1940s) than as a director. He wanted to show he was able to create a successful film at the box office, and so he agreed to direct this small thriller. But it lacks the depth of the major films of his career, and so Cowie is correct to label it minor.
That does not mean it isn't interesting. Welles was the one of the first directors to tackle the issue of missing Nazi war criminals. The same year as THE STRANGER Hitchcock was filming NOTORIOUS and Charles Vidor did GILDA. All three tackled the plight of fleeing Nazis. NOTORIOUS is about Nazi and Nazi sympathizers led by Claude Rains (as Alex Sebastian) in Rio De Janairo, who are plotting some deviltry involving uranium (Hitch's "MacGuffin"). GILDA's complicated plot deals with George Macready (as Balin Munsen) double crossing German industrialists who trusted him with contracts and papers giving the owner title to their tungsten interests in Argentina. THE STRANGER deals with the search by Wilson, a government agent, for one Franz Kindler, a leading Nazi, who has fled first to Latin America, and then to the United States. It turns out that the devious and clever Kindler has wormed his way into a marriage to the daughter of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Longstreet. In each case, as you see, the fact that the Reich has fallen does not mean the danger is over - the Nazis are planning a come-back.
It has been noted that Welles based Kindler on the character of Martin Bormann, the missing deputy to Hitler and leading adviser in his inner circle. Bormann had back stabbed his way to power at the expense of his predecessor Rudolf Hess. Hess had been showing signs of cracking up by 1941(that Bormann fully took advantage of) and then flew to England in a mad attempt to settle the war there before the invasion of Russia. However, Bormann (unlike Kindler) was not the creator of the "final solution" in the movie - that was Bormann's rival Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich had been assassinated in 1942, so he was dead and buried years before the war's end and the Nuremburg Trials (where Bormann was found guilty and condemned to death in absentia). I might add another missing Nazi leader is in everyone's mind - Welles has Konrad Meinike (Kindler's assistant) tell people he is on a mission from "the all highest". The deranged Meinike means God, but everyone (including Kindler) thinks he means the seemingly indestructible and missing Adolf Hitler. Details from Soviet archives proving Hitler's suicide were not published until the 1980s.
The film follows the efforts of Wilson in tracking down the missing Kindler. He allows Meinike to get out of prison (he was facing a death sentence) to follow him. Meinike does lead Wilson through Latin America to a town in Connecticut where Kindler is hiding as Charles Rankin, a history teacher in a prep school (where the sons of the nation's elite are groomed for their paths to leadership). Although it is barely commented on in the movie, Kindler/Rankin is in a lovely position to influence the future leaders of the country - to indoctrinate them into neo-Nazis theories. He is laying a groundwork to protect himself, but to continue the Nazi theories. In one scene he mentions the need to destroy the Germans because of their habitual warlike natures. But he retains a dislike of Jews (in the scene mentioned above, he insists Karl Marx is a Jew not a German).
The film has been cut by nearly half an hour. This was the start of the film which dealt with Meinike's "escape" and his journey (followed by Wilson) to and through Latin America. We see the conclusion, when he confronts a photographer who knows where Kindler is hiding. But the missing footage would have been very good to watch - it was a double build up to revealing that the evil Kindler was still alive, but also to lead to the irony of the insane Meinike's seeking out his missing boss to convert him to Christianity, only to be murdered by him. The sequence of the killing of Meinike is a great set piece, and one wishes the missing footage were still available because it would be a fine, ironic conclusion. One can here, as in the slashed up AMBERSONS, see what Welles' concept was meant to be, and what the audience was left with.
The individual portions of the film are quite good, in particular the bits with Billy House as Mr. Potter, and the paper chase sequence. The finale is good too. Kindler is a fanatic about clocks, repairing them whenever he needs recreation. The town's Gothic church has a broken medieval clock with figures. Kindler manages to repair it so the figures move. In the end of the film he is hiding in the tower, and comments on watching the townspeople searching for him - they look like ants to him, as he feels like God (his conversation here sounds very like that of Welles' signature bad guy role, Harry Lime in THE THIRD MAN made four years later - Lime also looks at the "ants" from the ferris wheel in Vienna). When confronted by Mary Longstreet Rankin (Charles bewildered and angry wife played by Loretta Young) and Wilson, Rankin gets killed by the clock figures. It was to be expected, and it is one bang - up conclusion to the film.
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