A Movie A Day: THE STRANGER (1946) Who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew?
Published at: Dec. 20, 2008, 4:40 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we follow Orson Welles over from yesterday’s trainwreck CASINO ROYALE to today’s 1946 thriller THE STRANGER. What a giant step up.
Now, I’m in the middle of packing for my trip back home, another 20 hours of travel that begins early tomorrow morning, so I might cut this a tad shorter than usual, but I don’t want to half-ass a look at this film.
It’s quite a spectacular movie, made even more fascinating by the timing of its release. This film was released a year after WW2 came to an end and it takes a hard look at the atrocities of the Nazi-run concentration camps, including what I believe is the first actual concentration camp footage used in a feature film.
The film is set in a small, East Coast town as we follow a Nazi-hunter (Edward G. Robinson’s Mr. Wilson) who is himself following a man known to be a high ranking Nazi official. He was let go in the hopes that he would lead Robinson to the biggest fish of them all, Franz Kindler, the mastermind behind the holocaust. This man was a genius, having never been documented in any substantial way. When he knew the Reich was falling, he destroyed anything that could tie him to the Nazi party and escaped into the ether, seemingly.
What I love about the film is that the ambiguity goes right out the window. I complained about that a bit when AMAD covered Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT, which was a terrific film, so I might sound like a hypocritical jackass since I really wanted there to be more mystery surrounding Joseph Cotton’s character. But I will say that Hitchcock’s film felt like it tipped the hand early and didn’t get the maximum value out of the ambiguity while Welles’ film was not built around the audience knowing whether or not Welles was indeed Kindler.
And yes, he is. We know it in the first 10 minutes of the movie. The real mystery of his character is watching the brilliant, if fucked up, mind at work trying to keep his cover from his new bride, the rest of the townspeople and the snooping Robinson. How is he going to do it? To what lengths will he go? It obvious in the first reel that he is willing to kill and can do it coldly, mechanically and without any remorse.
Legend has it that Welles didn’t care for this film, feeling like the studio took it out of his hands, but I would stress that Welles is fucking great in it, whether he thought so or not. I love that he plays such a unapologetically evil cocksucker. This dude really has no conscience and is a step beyond being a robot. Human emotion doesn’t really enter into the equation for him unless he needs to manipulate it to cover his crimes.
His new bride is played by Loretta Young, who has stars in her eyes and can not see what her husband is even though by halfway through it becomes completely obvious. She knows it, but refuses to let it sink in and soon she becomes the key to Welles’ cover and also Robinson’s success in proving Welles’ identity.
The cat and mouse game between Welles and Robinson is really the meat and potatoes of the film and what I think makes it iconic. It’s not overplayed, but there is a fantastic dinner scene which is what is referenced in the subhead quote. Robinson tries to bait Welles and Welles is too smart for it, but when Young’s brother brings up communism and Marx, Welles can’t help himself from commenting on it and that compulsion is the beginning of the end for him.
In fact the film is about compulsion in many ways. Kindler’s a brilliant mind, but can’t help himself when it comes to his passion (clock-building), which is what originally raises a flag about his true identity. I’m sure Kindler knows that it’s a risk, but he can’t help himself.
There’s also Robinson’s character’s compulsion, a more pure and steady desire to hunt down the man who initiated the holocaust. Hitler is gone, so this is the only bit of closure he believes remains. Robinson’s a good foil for Welles. There are few who could sit across from the man and be buyably not intimidated by Welles and Robinson is one of those people.
The flick is in the public domain, I believe, which is why I have it on a cheapo double feature release with Welles’ King Lear, but the above linked version seems to be a quality transfer. I could tell in the washed out mediocre transfer it was a beautifully shot film and I can only imagine how good it looks in a real, quality version.
Keep an eye on the shadows and architecture of the finale, which takes place in the town center clock tower that Welles is building throughout. His passion, his one human weakness, is what ultimately destroys him, both figuratively and literally and it’s a fascinatingly designed sequence.
Final Thoughts: I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s not the kind of film that really knocks you on your ass when you see it, but it’s such a class-act that you’ll be hard pressed not to walk away greatly impressed. It’s a fascinating story told in a fascinating way, with two great icons of cinema sparring for our viewing pleasure.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Saturday, December 20th: BROTHER ORCHID (1940)
Sunday, December 21st: THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936)
Monday, December 22nd: MOONTIDE (1942)
Tuesday, December 23rd: NOTORIOUS (1946)
Wednesday, December 24th: THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS (1958)
Thursday, December 25th: THE HIGH COMMISSIONER (1968)
Friday, December 26th: THE SILENT PARTNER (1979)
As I said at the front of the article, my travel back to the States begins early tomorrow morning, so it's quite possible I'll be late with tomorrow's column, but I'll do my best to get it posted in a timely fashion. The next one up is following Edward G. Robinson to the gangster flick BROTHER ORCHID! See you folks for that soon!