It really ticks me off when people (including Orson Welles himself) dismiss his thriller The Stranger as, to use one of the dirtiest slurs in film criticism, his “most conventional film,” as a stylish but formulaic product of a genius on a short studio leash.
That’s a bit like saying, “Well, it’s one of Shakespeare’s less good plays.” Because, in both cases, we’re talking about something that’s a hell of a lot more insightful, complex, and entertaining than most of what else is out there.
Welles takes a taut noir-suspense plotline and packs it with a larger sense of significance and trauma, as though time itself had blistered and burst under the withering, unfathomable atrocities of World War II.
Seriously—how many thrillers can you think of from the 1940s (and beyond!) that had the guts to use genuine newsreel footage of the horrors of the Holocaust as the crux of their moral and ethical stakes? That’s exactly what Welles did. Explain to me how that’s conventional.
In case you haven’t seen this deceptively ingenious gem, the story concerns a Nazi war criminal, Franz Kindler (a high level architect of the Holocaust and dead-ringer for Friedrich Nietzsche). This evil mastermind carefully preserved his anonymity—down to burning every known photograph of himself—and fled to America after World War II.
Under the name of Rankin, Kindler has blended into life in the idyllic town of Harper, Connecticut and even married Mary (a luminous Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court judge.
Yes, in the days before Google, who knows what kind of guy you might’ve married?
However, there’s no rest for the wicked, and Rankin’s being relentlessly pursued by an agent of the Allied War Crimes Bureau, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). The determined Nazi-hunter tracks Rankin/Kindler down by letting another war criminal out of prison in the hopes that the freed man will lead him to the big fish.
Kindler kills this hapless ex-comrade, the “little man,” so that he can’t betray Kindler’s identity. The problem is, Mary knows that the “little man” was looking for him. So Kindler has to try to kill her too.
I admit: it does sound pretty conventional on the surface. But a plot synopsis fails to translate the excellence of this film.
First off, The Stranger looks great and is crammed full of stunning shots. We get a tense long, long take during which Rankin slowly turns back into Kindler as he kills his former friend—and while praying no less!
Typical Wellesian angles crop up and enliven even the most rudimentary of scenes with a cockeyed creepiness. Through shadows so looming and poetic that they sometimes distract you from the plot, Welles paints a world subtly tattered and worn-down. Not even Harper, the hallowed bastion of New England purity, escapes the impact of a global trauma.
After the war, we understand, things are different. And they won’t ever be the way they were. A piece of the world’s innocence has died. It’s broken. Gone forever. The Capra-esque, quaint little town of Harper has changed irreversibly.
I even wonder to what extent Mary’s discovery of her husband’s awful true self is actually a reflection of American veterans coming home from World War II as strangers to their wives. Perhaps the evil Nazi is just a stand-in for damaged American manhood, for the prison of post-war domestic life. Even commercial ads from the 1940s betrayed a noirish quality, like this one for Listerine!
Look familiar? The following shot is from The Stranger, as Rankin looms over Mary in bed.
In the wake of a global conflict, Welles depicts a troubling, warped pretense of normalcy. A creeping penumbra and crazy angles turn ordinary places like high school gymnasiums and events like faculty tea parties into cauldrons of fear and roiling secrets.
I particularly appreciate how Welles uses clocks and mechanical devices, usually so reliable and quotidien, to create disorientation and explore the breakdown of perception.
You see, the evil Franz Kindler, when not planning mass murder, has a passion for clocks and watches, which seems very apt indeed, considering the ruthless “clockwork” execution of the Final Solution. There are lots of allusions to clocks and clockworks.
Mr. Wilson first gets his wind up that Harper is the place to find Kindler when he sees the hands to the clock on the Harper church tower spin around wildly while being fixed. After the “little man” manages to whack Mr. Wilson over the head with a piece of swinging gymnastic equipment in the Harper Academy gym, the rope swings back and forth in front of him, like a pendulum.
When Kindler sets out to kill his wife, he writes up a little itinerary with specific time coordinates.
Throughout the film, Kindler, a control freak if ever there was one, keeps returning to an old grandfather clock and winding it up, trying to make the old thing keep time.
At the risk of getting too analytical, time is really one of the two media that make up the essence of cinema—the other is space, of course. So, how can we read or interpret Kindler’s repeated gesture, portrayed with some of the film’s most ominous and beautiful chiaroscuro lighting?
We can perceive a slight metafilmic joke in Orson Welles as Kindler winding up the clock. (Incidentally, when Hitchcock made his cameo in Rear Window, he too is winding up a clock in the composer’s apartment.) Are we seeing the director as the artistic tyrant, the keeper of time dissolve into the sociopolitical tyrant, trying to make the world keep time with his unthinkable schemes?
I might be overstating my case, but I think that we can infer a connection between the two most powerful mechanical devices in The Stranger: the clock and the film projector that reveals to Mary the extremes of what her husband (and mankind in general) is capable of.
At almost the center point of the film, Kindler/Rankin has confessed to Mary that he killed the man who came looking for him, but he claims that the “little man” was a blackmailer who would have threatened their happiness. Willing to conceal this justified murder and lie to protect her husband, Mary is called to visit her father and talk to Mr. Wilson.
When she gets there and opens the door, the room is dark and flickering with projected footage. The lights come on and Mr. Wilson softens Mary up with a few questions—a body was uncovered in town, did you know him, ect.—before asking her to watch a film. The lights go out again and before we even see what Wilson’s projecting, the look of appalled stupefaction on Mary’s face makes us wonder what she’s seeing. Then we see. It’s a screen full of dead bodies.
A moment ago, Mary thought she was involved in a murder mystery. That’s still true, but now the mystery isn’t whodunit—it’s howcouldsomeonepossiblyhavedunit? In place of one dead body, we get too many to count, too many to mentally process, strewn across the ground without emotion or order as the camera impassively pans across them.
Clearly shocked, Mary protests that she’s “never ever seen a Nazi.” But, and this is key, Wilson explains that they can look like normal people and act like normal people if it benefits them. I find it hard to believe that this statement is only supposed to apply to Franz Kindler in this context. After WWII, a lot of people nursed the belief that the people who committed atrocities were somehow different from the rest of us. It turns out, as Milgram’s obedience studies from 1960s have shown, a disquietingly large percentage of the population will kill if told that an authority figure takes full responsibility.
But back to the scene, which suddenly turns documentary, as Wilson explains some of the more awful points of the concentration camps, like the gas chambers and the lime pits—and you see them. As does Mary.
Of course, using newsreel footage in fictional movies wasn’t so unusual—Casablanca, for example, is punctuated and grounded in reality by choice morsels of grainy footage: advancing Nazis, downtrodden refugees, mortars discharging their fire over Paris. Nevertheless, war on an open field had been filmed in WWI and audiences were used to seeing it. Even today, if you want to watch those Holocaust newsreels on websites, you get a warning that it’s disturbing, mature content.
And it’s one thing to see it in context as a newsreel, which occupies a fixed place in one’s schema of documentary media. You expect to see awful, real things in the news. You’re at least braced for it. In a movie? Not so much.
A Nazi gas chamber projected in a Judge’s house in Connecticut.
To show footage from the concentration camps in a general admission fictional film is pretty damn radical, not to mention risky from a moral standpoint. (One thinks of the actual shots of Bruce Lee’s funeral used to mercenary and meretricious effect in Game of Death.) However, there’s nothing cheap and exploitative about how Welles inserts Holocaust images into The Stranger.
Including those indelible images in a made-up story, Welles blurs the line between the dream world of the movies and the real world, and, by mixing these up, he gives us a reality check that documentary footage alone cannot provide. Just as Mary wakes up to the evil that Rankin/Kindler harbors within him, we the viewers are jolted out of the diegesis of a pleasant little thriller to understand that this happened and will forever mark our memories.
Woman in the dark: Mary watches the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
Reflecting on the Hiroshima tragedy, Marguerite Duras pointed out that we can’t even talk about it—we can only talk about the impossibility of truly talking about it. Welles finds a way around this dilemma of portraying the Holocaust by just borrowing newsreel footage. But he doesn’t do so in a “BAM! Truth at 24 frames per second!” manner. He takes care to suggest that this is not the whole picture. He carefully makes us see that we’re not seeing the atrocities—we’re seeing a film of the atrocities projected onto a screen… and filmed by another camera.
We’re looking at a film of a film of the Holocaust.
The degree of separation, however, rather than hinting that we just can’t comprehend what happened, brings up the idea of individual cultural trauma. I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw that footage on YouTube (I had to lie and say I was over 18 and willing to watch disturbing footage in the name of historical interest).
That footage of the camps and the wide-eyed Allied liberators has become more than a document or an artifact. It represents a rite of passage, a kind of frozen moment in time that we all have to encounter at some point, a point that will then crystallize in our lives and haunt us. Can we wrap our minds around the sheer mechanical abomination of that footage? No. But it stays with us. The experience of watching that grainy phantasmagoria of suffering becomes an enclosed moment, a rupture in time.
To get back to the scene, I find it significant that the images are not just projected onto a screen, but, at times, onto Mr. Wilson’s face. He is part of the screen, and he casts his shadow onto the image. Now, I don’t want to tread on what Welles himself called “the jagged edge of symbolism,” because the materiality of the characters, the room, and the image itself save the scene from trite symbolism. And yet, watching Edward G. Robinson interact with those images that seem to fuse with him conveys so much about the strange way in which cultural traumas both escape us and live in us.
Here’s where the strength of the movies comes in: I can’t express this in words half as well as Welles can with images. I don’t want to explain all that. I want you to watch the movie and tell me if you see it—or more importantly, if you feel it.
And then there’s the motion of the film reels, turning at a regular pace and rhythm, ’round and ’round like the gears of a clock. Even once the film strip has run out, the reel continues to spin, the tail end of the celluloid slapping against the table and giving us another little wake-up call. The shots of the gears of the projector foreshadow images of the gears of Harper’s clock spinning out of control at the grand finale of the film.
The out-of-control film projector…
…and the out-of-control clock tower gears.
In a way, the clock is inextricably linked with the movie projector as both introduce a looming sense of dread that intensifies in the final third of the film.
Immediately after this scene, Franz Kindler/Rankin fixes the Harper clock and it chimes out—waking up the entire town as Kindler looks down at them from the top of the tower, godlike.
The villagers come running to investigate the newly working clock.
Having disturbed the peace of the town, the clock continues to strike at important moments for the rest of the film. For example, as Kindler saws away at the ladder to the top of the church tower, planning Mary’s “accidental” death, the clock strikes—meanwhile, Wilson looks at the tower from his hotel room and, at the Rankin house, the sound keeps Mary from sleeping. We see her tossing and turning as it tolls in the night. In a series of three shots, the sound connects the central characters.
The devil rising: a mechanical demon moves in front of the face of the clock as Kindler engineers his wife’s death and the chimes sound out.
The sound of the chiming links together all of these shots and stresses the relationship between the incarnations of good and evil, Kindler and Wilson—both could actually be “the stranger” referred to by film’s the title—and the ordinary woman trying to negotiate the right path between them after making a very big mistake.
The clock’s tolling also coincides with and sort of exteriorizes the knowledge of those horrors that Mary witnessed. The sound design of the clock’s booming chimes makes the “home stretch” of the film more taut, implacable, and tense.
But it’s really at the end of the movie where the clock-cinema connection clicks, as Kindler holes up in the clock tower, where Mary comes to kill him with Mr. Wilson in pursuit.
Mary takes a wild shot at Kindler and misses, but hits the clock mechanisms and sends them spinning out of control.
Her shot prompts a gorgeous set piece of accelerated montage as the wounded Kindler tries to escape—whirring gears, shots, jerky movements, a fall onto the face of the clock. Just as the gears of the clock have accelerated beyond reason, so the well-paced, patient suspense of the film gives way to a frenzy of quick cuts. The clock and the cinema freak out in tandem.
Is the scene a little allegorical? With Mary as an avenging angel… and the actual angel statue on the clock stabbing the demonic Kindler and sending him to his death? Probably, but there’s something even more cathartic going on.
The scene ends with a shot of the face of the clock, the hands revolving madly, mimicking the fruitless spinning of the film projector when it ran out of newsreel footage. Some trauma lies beyond time, beyond what can be shown, but that incessant, unreasoning, out-of-control cycling hits a very emotional chord.
Some collective memories or experiences are so vast and awful that they make our heads spin. We can’t ever understand those pivotal moments in history, just like we can’t ever take the derivative of a single point in mathematics. The weight of these remembrances make our usual linear conceptions of time and memory judder, overheat, and careen off of any framework of calculation. They mark the asymptotes of our cultural perception and recollection. And The Stranger helps us to understand this. Time itself seems to go haywire at the end of the film, as if the magnitude of the horrors of WWII had created a cultural momentum that derails all sense of narrative or fiction.
The Stranger manages to stare down the barrel of some of the most hideous things that humans have ever perpetrated against each other and pack that kind of ugliness into a genre picture! In my mind, it’s the direct ancestor of a film like Hiroshima, Mon Amour that manages to be both a love story in a silent era way and an avant-garde Mobius ring of loss and desire on macro and micro scales. The only difference is, The Stranger works on your mind subtly, without you totally realizing it. I’ve always really liked, respected, and enjoyed this film—even before I knew a jump cut from a jump rope. There’s something healing about it in the end, even if you’re not watching it for a dose of Wellesian genius.
If you want a suspenseful, entertaining B movie, you’ll get it. But if you want an exorcism of a collective trauma and a darkly beautiful tale of deception, undeserved love, and a thinking conflict between good versus evil, you’ll find that too—even in as, ahem, conventional a film as this one.
The Stranger is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch it for free right now! Download it at the Internet Archive.