“I watched them, here like God, looking at little ants”
With a plot that contains a Nazi war criminal hiding out in New England with his past erased, playing the role of school teacher and marrying the judge’s daughter, all while being on the hunt by an Allied Commission man, you’d think some good things could happen. Then you see that it stars and is directed by Orson Welles … you can’t lose. Unfortunately, absolutes are too misleading because Welles proves here that he is not infallible. In a heavy-handed story, complete with over-the-top performances, caricatures of past roles, multitudes of close-ups to show raised eyebrows and bulging eyes, The Stranger becomes more of a joke on itself than a serious thriller. If it has anything going for it, it is the fact that the unintentional humor is so pronounced and comical that it kind of works.
Welles himself is a lot of fun and plays the part well, completely without any trace of a German accent—tough to do, I would think, if you were an ex-Nazi general that came up with the concept of mass genocide. At least his friend, released from jail to trail him, had a thick gait to his voice giving some of the story authenticity. Welles plays the charmer impeccably, almost just riffing on himself; who could resist the guy? I really just like the fact that he casts himself as the villain oftentimes over the hero, not many vanity chasing leading men today would do that. They all direct just so they can secure themselves more screen time. To those means, it is his directing that has some flashes of brilliance mixed in with bouts of laziness. To show so many lingering reaction shots on himself whenever he gleans the news around town that his cover is slowly being blown is so blatant that it makes the subtle scenes just fade into the background. Scenes like when Welles is telling his wife a tale about who the little man was that came calling, shot in a way to only show her face looking at him while his hands wring around the back of a church pew are so gorgeous that you feel sorry they are apart of such a mixed bag whole. One moment also shows the couple going in for a kiss, so up close that their faces are silhouetted against the back wall—stunning to view.
The rest of the acting isn’t half bad either. Loretta Young, as the bride, is adequate and shows some nice moments when denying what she knows as the truth deep inside her. Edward G. Robinson is quite good as the government man on the case. With his gangster demeanor and looks, he plays the intelligence card right and his cajoling of the truth from people is impressive and believable. Even Billy House as the shopkeeper—and town clerk of course—is a riot. His name, Mr. Potter, isn’t the only thing resembling the role of same name in It’s a Wonderful Life though, he looks very much like Lionel Barrymore too. The characters couldn’t be farther apart, however, and each time he puts on his betting hat for a game of checkers was priceless. Along with them came a turn from Richard Long as Noah Longstreet, Welles’ brother-in-law. This was the one role that stuck with me as truly good. His naïveté and fear for what he learned about the man he barely knew as well as for his sister in that man’s clutches was portrayed to perfection. Holding his own opposite bigger names, Long was probably the best thing coming out of the film for me.
Welles might have been able to hone things in a bit more and made a tenser film. Instead, it appears he is enjoying the broader approach, allowing his actors to play up the camp, maybe to diffuse the serious subject matter of Nazi war criminals, who knows? As my friend said upon the film’s completion, you know there must have been trouble when one person created the story, two others adapted it, and yet another wrote the screenplay. One would think Welles would have put his own hat into the mix and steered everything down a tighter path, but maybe he felt the need to just go out and have fun. After the production troubles and release debacles for his two previous films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, you can’t blame him for just taking the paycheck to ready another trip into the warzones.
The Stranger 5/10 | ★ ★