Not to be confused with Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Albert Camus’s novel, Orson Welles’s The Stranger is an uneven, occasionally compelling post-war thriller about a Nazi monster hiding in a small Connecticut town. Franz Kindler, alias Charles Rankin (Welles) is a former SS officer responsible for atrocities that are never fully described, but which presumably have something to do with the concentration camps shown in documentary footage at one point in the story. His identity is uncovered by FBI agent Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), but most of the drama revolves around convincing Rankin’s American wife (Loretta Young) of the truth about her husband.
What makes the story unusual is that Kindler’s presumed war crimes are dealt with so obliquely that it is difficult to feel much against him. While there is that documentary footage shown to his wife to make her understand Nazi guilt, there is nothing to connect Rankin to the atrocities beyond Wilson’s insistence. (His “evidence” is decidedly weak.) There is not even much verbal description of those horrors. Instead, we are expected to accept what is said about Kindler/Rankin because we witness his ruthlessness in killing another character (and in that ultimate of cinematic no-noes, a dog!).
As a result, the story of The Stranger is more suspension than suspense, less a manhunt than a hovering on hold as Mrs. Rankin’s conscience evolves. Even the cat and mouse game with Wilson feels protracted. To fill up running time, there is a lot of small town color, perhaps meant as idyllic contrast to Kindler’s past. Some of the cinematography successfully evokes that environment, but most of the atmosphere and other townspeople are pure back lot, neither realistically convincing nor a stylized, self-referential distillation. The grafting of a medieval German clock important for plot purposes on to the steeple of a rural New England church is glaringly unlikely, almost a metaphor for trying to paste European horrors on to American settings. (The more interesting subject would be how Rankin fits into the town and avoids detection.)
Examples of Welles’s signature Expressionist flair bubble up occasionally, but despite those moments, the film never quite gels as a thriller, much less as a demonstration of Nazi evil. Only Welles’s performance, all edgy manipulation and barely contained ruthlessness, comes close to at least a hint of Nazi neurotic fanaticism.
The Stranger tends to be dismissed by Welles enthusiasts, and to be sure it largely lacks the extravagant showmanship of the director at his best. Perhaps he felt the need to suppress his more extroverted side in order to evoke the quiet of a small town. The results are uneasy, more becalmed than evocative, unpleasantly tense without suspense. That mix may even have been intentional, but the results are bewildering and unresolved as the film struggles to overcome its implausibilities and lack of purpose. By trying to build suspense while failing to make a good argument against Kindler/Rankin, the results feel more contrived than convincing.