Wednesday 11 June 2014

Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)

A sparkling film noir about the hunt for an elusive Nazi hiding in plain sight, The Stranger is a dazzling Orson Welles achievement, combining small town innocence with international intrigue.

At the United Nations War Crimes Commission, Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) authorizes the release of tweedy small-time Nazi prisoner Meinike (Konstantin Shayne). Wilson is hoping that Meinike will lead him to the wanted war criminal Franz Kindler (Welles), who has erased all evidence of his previous life and created a new identity. The plan works: with Wilson in pursuit, Meinike makes his way to the idyllic small town of Harper, Connecticut, where Kindler has assumed the persona of school teacher Charles Rankin, and is just about to marry the sweet Mary (Loretta Young), daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.

Meinike has a brief meeting with Mary, but Kindler is most unhappy that the little man has potentially revealed his whereabouts, and so Meinike pays the price. With Wilson closing in on his prey, Kindler is on guard to keep his real identity a secret, and the dangerous business of uncovering a Nazi in hiding will require Mary to question her judgement about the man who is now her husband.

A powerful study of opposing forces, The Stranger creates tight tension between the hunter, the hunted and the victims caught in the middle. Wilson and Kindler are similar men, determined, smart and resourceful, and their games of accusation and denial, hide and seek grow ever more serious. Robinson and Welles are worthy on-screen adversaries, two heavyweight actors facing off in a mighty battle of wills.

Meinike, Mary and her little town are the collateral damage, Meinike selfishly used by Wilson, Mary recruited by Kindler to complete his assimilation, and Harper unknowingly serving as a post-war battleground. Wilson's interaction with the townsfolk brings out the character of Harper, with the local grocer and jack of all trades Mr. Potter (Billy House) at the hub of everything including gossipy innocence. The church gradually emerges as the central node where good and evil will have a final confrontation, Kindler's obsession with fixing clocks the one part of his past that he is unable to delete.

Welles packs The Stranger with shadows, close-ups, dangerous camera angles and stark contrasts, creating the perfect film noir aesthetic. And he infects Harper with a spreading evil in the form of Kindler, a man quickly establishing himself as a teacher of children and son-in-law of a Supreme Court judge. It does not take long for villainy to take hold, and Kindler represents the threat posed to an open society by a tenacious enemy with a dark but now erased past.

Compact and compelling, The Stranger is a devious fugitive and an impeccable movie.

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