Welles, In Order #3 – The Stranger
The Stranger holds two distinctions in Welles’ filmography: 1) It was his most financially successful film, and 2) It was his least favorite. Given the rushed look of the final cut, neither of those two observations is surprising.
After the box-office failures of both Kane and Ambersons, Welles needed a project that showed he could bring a film in on time and on budget. In other words, he wanted to prove he was capable of following studio orders. And that’s appropriate given that the plot of The Stranger centers around the hunt for a former Nazi who, when confronted by his pursuer, pleads the old Nazi defense that he “was only following orders.”
But that connection is more a coincidence than intentional, as the project found him. Producer Sam Spiegel had liked Kane and came to Welles with an offer to play Franz Kindler, the Nazi, under the direction of John Huston. The script was written by Victor Trivas, who had previously penned two films, Mirage de Paris and Song of Russia, a war romance starring Robert Taylor. Welles offered to direct the film himself, and Spiegel, not wanting to lose Welles as the lead, accepted, with conditions. Welles had to agree to the cuts made by editor Ernest Nims, and if he got out of line, he’d be fired as director but remain as the star. If the film ran over budget, Welles would have to pay out of his own pocket the added expenses. And he had to cast Edward G. Robinson as the Nazi hunter, instead of Welles’ original choice, Agnes Moorehead.
The Stranger is a decent film, but it’s not the masterpiece of Kane nor even the could-have-been masterpiece of Ambersons. Since Welles had little control over the project right from the beginning, there’s no lost footage that could have made it great — such footage was never shot. Though there apparently was a 20-30-minute sequence of Meinike hunting for Kindler in South America that was cut. Similarly, in the Welles canon, it’s at the bottom of the list, and until I started this series, I was unaware of it altogether. No one discusses it, and it’s difficult to find much of anything written about the film. Even though Huston helped write the script, the sole mention of it in his autobiography is in passing. Despite that, there’s several interesting things going on. The first is that if you were to sit down a gaggle of film students, screen the flick for them, and ask who directed it, the bulk of them would probably say, “Hitchcock.” (And I apologize for the exceedingly poor quality of these stills. They’re taken from YouTube and…yeah.)
The film opens in a government office, the Allied War Crimes Commission, precisely, looking down on an angry Edward G. Robinson, who’s screaming something about leaving the cell door open and letting “him” escape. We don’t know who “him” refers to, but it’s a good guess that since “he” is locked up and since this is the AWCC, “he” is probably a Nazi, and an especially nasty Nazi at that. Robinson’s certainly worked up and, even breaks his own pipe, but the other fellows, particularly the Frenchman, because, dammit, he’s French, object to this idea, claiming it’s too risky. The opening is all of two minutes, and the scene following is if that, and sets the tone for the frenzied pace that will sustain for the remainder of the film. More on that in a moment — there’s one thing I’d like to get to first.
Now I’m no Nazi hunter, but if I were, I’d think that no self-respecting Nazi would fall for such an obvious ruse. But then again, it works, and that’s probably why, years later, they’d try it again with GOB Bluth. Nevertheless, are we to believe that these are the top agents among the Nazi regime? Much is made of Kindler’s status within the party (and the fact that he never allowed himself to be photographed) — if he were clever enough not to leave any link connecting him to the Nazis in the (correct) assumption that they be defeated, why have such a moron as confidant?
Nazi practices his cover story, “I’m traveling for my health,” an excuse that will be ironic later, to himself, and while it may not be smart to keep reciting your cover story out loud, it nevertheless works. As the customs agents ask his country of origin, there’s an impressive crane shot sweeping up to the top deck, where (presumably) Robinson is telling one of his agents to follow Nazi. And Nazi dutifully heads to a photographer, asking the whereabouts of Franz Kindler — which will be the first name mentioned in the film, and whom we can tell is the bad guy because the music tells us so — and is directed to a small town in Connecticut. For that matter, I can only assume that the title “Nazis in Connecticut” was already taken by whatever the 1940’s equivalent of Asylum Film was — the same guys who had previously made the Welles’ knockoffs Citizen Man and The Savvy Rosenbaums, both of which probably starred William Bendix.
The fades and dissolves, the silhouette of the Fedora-Clad Spy, as well as canted angles and the crane shot are Wellesian touches, as is the quick beat of Nazi practicing his cover story, but there’s no grandeur to the opening. Kane had its newsreel, Ambersons had its vasiline-tinged narration (which I guess is the 1870’s version of the newsreel), but The Stranger doesn’t get the usual Welles’ scene-setting. Worse, it misses a great opportunity for suspense (and this won’t be the first time) with the Gal Spy tailing Nazi. There’s going to be a lot of Hitchcock comparisons flying around here, and we might as well bring him out now — if Hitchcock were shooting the scene, he’d make Gal Spy lose Nazi, or Nazi wise up to the fact that he’s being followed, or have Gal Spy attacked from the side, by the other two Nazis you didn’t even know were there — he’d do something, and if it can be wedged into the plot, hey, great! Of course, we don’t want Welles to be Hitchcock, but is it too much to ask he be aware of the genre his making?
Nazi makes his way to Connecticut by way of bus, with Edward G. Robinson hot on his trail, so hot he hasn’t had time to buy a new pipe. Nazi stores his suitcase at the General Store and skidaddles to the local gym which had a supply of fenugreek for men, followed again by Robinson. But this time Nazi knows he’s being followed and tries to kill Robinson with a rung, which clearly misses its target but knocks Robinson out anyway. His would-be captor eliminated, Nazi finally gets to Kindler’s boarding house and is greeted by Loretta Young, setting the curtains and going on about her impending wedding, as women do. She directs him to the local boys’ school, where Kindler is posing as a history teacher.
So far, everything’s been pretty straightforward, and the point of that rush seems to be getting to Orson Welles. This is a little confusing, since he’s the guy everyone has been searching for up to this point and, if it’s a Welles film, it’s pretty likely that Welles is going to play the protagonist — he was the protagonist in Kane and it’s not a leap to figure that he would have played George in The Magnificent Ambersons. Heck, he’s even the “stranger” they refer to in the title! But the protagonist isn’t Welles, or rather “Franz Kindler,” Kindler spends the film reacting to everyone else; when Nazi informs him of his conversion, Kindler reacts, when the dog gets too close, Kindler reacts, when his wife knows the truth and confronts him, Kindler reacts. These aren’t parts of Kindler’s grand plan, they’re complications — for that matter, the only action he’s taken toward enacting that grand plan is marrying the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. And it’s not Nazi either, even though we’ve been following him so far. Nor is it Loretta Young. The guy to watch out for is Edward G. Robinson, who, as far as we know now, doesn’t even have a name and appears to be dead.
Despite that, we spend a lot of time with Kindler, who can go from chatting with his students as they ogle the saucy minxes of Harper to murdering Nazis out in the back forty. And incidentally, Nazi has a name! Meinike! Though it’s not much use to us since about two minutes after it’s revealed, Meinike gets whacked.
And what a whacking it is! After a long slog of exposition, Kindler learns that his fellow Nazi has found God and repented his sins (which does raise the question of why is he still carrying out Nazi orders), he asks Kindler to do the same, and they pray — and gradually Kindler’s hands twist into claws, clutching Nazi’s throat and choking him behind the bushes. It’s an ingenious twist of blocking, but Welles isn’t done yet — almost as soon as the murder’s committed, the boys charge through the woods, blazing down the paper trail, and suddenly, our sympathies switch from the Nazi(!) to the murderer. It’s a fantastic bit of cinematic sleight of hand, and it leads into some equally fantastic camera work as it follows Kindler scrambling to relay the paper trail, lest the boys discover the corpse.
I can’t recall too many action sequences in Welles’ filmography, but in both this and Chimes at Midnight, the action is shot from a slight distance and from the perspective of a particular character, as though they’re watching themselves, though, more accurately, it gives the impression that the entire world is out of sync. Welles tends to be very deliberate and controlled with his camera, and when I first watched the sequence, it was jarring to see. It’s also one of the most Hitchcockian moments in the film — relaying the paper trail is a page (sorry) right out of Hitchcock, and while Hitch was already an established director by 1946, this is the kind of touch that seems more ’50’s Hitchcock, but then he’d made Shadow of a Doubt in 1943 and starring Welles regular Joseph Cotton, and there’s more than a few similarities between this film and that one. I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that Welles had studied Hitchcock prior to making The Stranger, but then he misses another chance to add some more suspense, as the paper trail is only a small moment. I expected a little bit more with Welles ambling around, cross-cut with the boys in pursuit, Welles tossing the strips away from the body, the boys getting closer, and so on. Instead, it cuts to Kindler’s wedding.
And, just as soon as the wedding commences, Robinson awakes and does what any sensible War Crimes agent would do: heads to the General Store. It’s a bit odd that so little is made of the wedding and so much is made of Robinson at the General Store. Erratic as these cuts are, the sequences in the General store are some of the best stuff in the movie. The checkers match, as well as the Store Clerk and his exchange with Robinson, makes us feel like we’re back in an Orson Welles picture instead of some ghoulish Hitchcock Frankenstein monster — people with their own concerns and goals and agendas are talking. One thing I admire about Welles as a writer, or at least rewriter, is that his supporting characters always have their own personalities — yes, they’re in this or that scene because the script requires them to be, but they have a life outside of the screenplay’s demands — or, I believe I read this phrase somewhere, everyone behaves like the others are characters in his own story. And that’s the feeling you get from the Store Clerk. The actor, William House, came from burlesque theatre; Welles had been a fan of House and enjoyed his performance so much that he expanded the character — something that apparently upset Robinson since the revisions were at his character’s expense, which can be seen from his chronic frown whenever he plays opposite House.
The lingering sequence of Robinson at the store is bookended by Kindler’s wedding and reception, where Kindler slips out to bury Meinike’s body (and I do love the shot looking down on Welles burying the body).
Robinson crosses name after name from his list and looks out the window at the town clock, which is in the middle of its mid-day seizure. He goes to investigate and meets Noah Longstreet. They exchange some clock-related pleasantries and Noah reveals that his brother-in-law is Rankin…Charles Rankin. Well, he doesn’t reveal so much as force it on Robinson, who doesn’t appear to realize that Rankin’s name is on his list, which is understandable since he appears much more interested in discussing clocks than in hunting Nazis. Now that may be part of his cover, and I’m sure any good detective has the ability to make it look like they’re not detecting at all, but so far the clues have simply fallen into Robinson’s lap, as it’s not only the townsfolk, but now cosmic forces doing everything short of slapping Robinson in the face with a big “It’s Rankin! The Guy you’re looking for is Charles Rankin!” embroidered gauntlet.
Robinson’s chat with Noah lands him a spot at the Longstreet dinner table, and I can confidently say, without a shred of irony, that anytime a bunch of people are eating in a Welles’ film, it’s going to be one of the movie’s best scenes. And not only one of the best scenes, but also one of the most thematically important. In Citizen Kane, it’s at a dinner party when Charlie decides to abuse his power of press to declare war on Spain; in The Magnificent Ambersons it’s at a dinner party when George and Eugene have an argument over automobiles and Eugene explains the whole point of the film; in F for Fake it’s at a dinner party when Welles tells his retinue stories and guzzles down lobsters the size of toilet seats. If someone’s sitting down to eat something in a Welles’ film, you should pay attention.
And there’s no exception here. The usual pleasantries open the meal, and then the discussion turns to the German people, and Rankin tries to skirt the subject until he’s pressed, launching into a long speech, almost rehearsed, about the inborn barbarity of the Germans. Noah counters by noting that Marx at least pressed for some kind of liberty, and Kindler replies that Marx was a Jew, and that the only course for containing the German people is annihilation. Not only is it some great subtle cross examining (look at Welles’ head bow when Robinson, excuse me, Wilson, says he arrived into town on Friday) that lets Kindler know that Wilson knows and that he knows Kindler knows, but it broaches the idea of free will in an otherwise lackluster thriller. I mentioned at the beginning of this undertaking that Welles’ movies have the framework of popular fiction, occasionally even pulp, but he somehow elevates the material — and exploring a rather complex philosophical issue is certainly a way to do it.
There’s a great line in the film (and play) They Might Be Giants about the main character, a judge, who goes nuts and believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes. One of the characters, describing the early life of the judge, before he went insane, mentions that he loved cowboy films, because the line between hero and villain is so clearly drawn. The same could be said about the idea of predestination: People are born either bad or good, and nothing they can do will change that — and for a predominately “studio” film, as opposed to an Orson Welles’ film, it does the handy task of removing any sympathy for the bad guy. But the dinner scene doesn’t feel like it belongs in this film. I don’t know for certain which parts were written by Trivas and which were written by Welles, but the dinner scene and everything at the General Store has an air of sophistication that’s lacking throughout the rest of the film. However little control Welles had over the script, it’s not wild speculation to presume he wrote this scene — both for the complexity and for the fact that Welles shared a similar opinion toward Fascists, as written in several articles he wrote for The New York Post. Regardless, and useful as the idea of predestination is for erasing the fissures between good and bad, it is perhaps the most dominant theme Welles explores (as best he can).
It also adds another dimension to the symbol of the clock — the idea that things are assembled in perfect working order, and if that order is disrupted, the whole thing flies out of control. Aside from the obligations of the screenplay, that’s why the clock is never working; it’s a representation of Kindler who has been wedged into this pedestrian life that requires him to deny his very Nazi nature. Tough luck that he was born a Nazi, but that’s who he is, and he can’t change it.
And while we’re still at dinner, let’s get back to Wilson. Immediately following the dinner, Wilson informs his superior that Rankin is above suspicion, and after he awakes from his dream he realizes that only a Nazi would deny Marx his Germanality because he was a Jew. I can buy that Wilson has a talent for playing dumb, but still, this is shoddy detective work, and it undercuts any mystery to the film. Granted we already know that Rankin is the guy the moment we meet him, but you can still write a mystery around the audience knowing the killer’s identity before the detective — there’s an entire series based on that formula — and its detective is miles ahead of Wilson.
So Wilson knows that Rankin is Kindler, and what does he do?
He accuses him He arrests him He goes fishing and then heads back to the General Store for another game of checkers. While there, Kindler shows up with his wife, right as the Clerk and Wilson are rummaging through Meinike’s suitcase. Mary (Kindler/Rankin’s wife) starts to mention something about Meinikie but is restrained by Kindler, which Wilson oversees, and finally Noah enters, anxious that the dog is missing. Wilson reveals the truth about Kindler to Noah, who protests that his sister will stand by her husband unless she can be convinced of his evil And we awkwardly cut to Kindler, already forming his cover story for the murder of Meinike — he claims he was blackmailing him for killing his sister, which was an accident. The next morning Noah finds the dog, dead of poison, and in the first real bit of detective work in the film, Wilson reasons that from the dried leaves and mud on the dog’s paws he must have been digging for something, and since he was poisoned, could only make it so far from where he was digging.
The search for the body begins, and once Kindler finds out he elaborates on his story, confessing to the murder of Meinike to Mary but maintaining the lie that he did it for her. It’s a good twist, and the performances by Welles and Young sell it, but this entire sequence, the most dramatic turn in the film, is nearly washed out from the dreadful score. I don’t want to harp too much on it, but the music in The Stranger really is rotten — and that’s not simply because we’ve been spoiled by Bernard Herrmann for the past two films. Here is the score is provided by Branislau Kaper, a name that has nearly 140 composer credits, and among them, the only two films I recognize at a cursory glance are The Brothers Karamazov and The Red Badge of Courage. And from those, I don’t recall one note. Kaper’s music embellishes every tic — like a grandmother laying out everything wrong with your generation, and you have to sit there and listen.
Wilson has Judge Longstreet phone Mary and request her to come over. It’s a stage set by Wilson to show Mary the extent of Kindler’s crimes, which he does by way of actual footage of concentration camps. For trivia fans, The Stranger is widely recognized as the first film made after World War II to show such footage. and yet, Mary still cannot face the truth.
Kindler returns to the General Store to retrieve some ice cream for the wedding party the couple have planned and also some sleeping pills, whose purpose we can confidently guess at. It’s a quick beat, but another good one, mainly thanks to House’s performance. Welles needs to get the exposition across that Kindler’s buying sleeping pills, and instead of being subtle about it, he deftly has the Store Clerk go on a rant about them — they’re unnatural, he claims, stating that the only thing that should bring on a good night’s sleep is a hard day’s work. It’s overt, but it’s also entirely within character. But mention of a hard day’s work is unintentionally paradoxical, given whom he’s delivering it to. Especially since we’ve just seen the results of Kindler’s past occupation as the head of a concentration camp — one of the most “efficient,” actually, which is a similar bit of dark irony. The job of exterminating a group of people, however good one is at it, isn’t the kind of hard work that should let you sleep easy. Nor, for that matter, is the job of tracking down Nazis and putting others in danger, nor, again, is the housewife who is put in danger and just wants to stand by her husband. Kindler, Wilson, and Mary are the three people we see “working” in the film, and none of them have sleep-inducing jobs.
This is another instance of predestination. With a title like The Stranger, the theme of identity seems important, and here almost everyone is identified by their “job” — Kindler is, again, the former head of a concentration camp, and that’s why Wilson, a detective, is tracking him. Whatever life Kindler has made for himself here in Harper is unimportant, all that matters is that he used to be a Nazi. Does Wilson actually care about the people Kindler killed? It may be due to the stiffness of Robinson’s performance, but he certainly doesn’t seem affected by the footage he shows Mary, and he’s disturbingly casual about his suspicion that Kindler plans to kill her. For all his tenacity, he doesn’t appear to take any satisfaction in his job or have much of an appreciation for human life, which may be why we’re always identifying him by his stiff, wooden pipe.
Mary, more interestingly, tries desperately to be defined by her role as housewife, hoping that by doing so, her husband can somehow, magically, not be a Nazi. If there’s a moral to The Stranger, it’s that no one can reinvent themselves or escape the person they truly are — Meinike will always be a Nazi, and his conversion to Christianity is the thing that ultimately kills him; Mary’s assumption of the housewife role very nearly kills her; and Kindler, no matter how hard he tries to bury something, whether it be his past or a dead body, it will always resurface. The only people who seem perfectly comfortable with who they are are Wilson and the Store Clerk. It’s a bleak bit of predetermination, but it seems appropriate on a meta level for Welles himself making the film — “Okay, I’ll abide by the studio’s decisions, but, dammit, this is not how Orson Welles makes movies!”
And if that’s not enough, there’s also the incessant clock chiming, which the Clerk notes is keeping people awake. I’ve touched already on the symbolism of the clock, but the most pervasive use of it, one that rings (sorry) heavily throughout the film, is as a reminder to everyone, particularly Kindler, that their past is catching up to them.
And from there, we go to another wedding party, leading to the penultimate exchange between Kindler and Wilson. A partygoer asks Kindler to recount a quotation from Emerson, which escapes him at the moment, but it doesn’t escape Wilson, who recites it with no small display of satisfaction. The quote is, “Commit a crime and the world is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole.” The past will out, indeed. This, like Kindler’s speech at the table previously, feels scripted. Yes, Wilson is on to Kindler, and it’s only a matter of, yes, time, until he catches him. Yes, it does reinforce the “no free will” theme underlying the film. But this doesn’t introduce any new angle or idea into the film; do we need to evoke Emerson simply to restate what’s already obvious? Actually, it would work better as a capper to the scene, which features another Hitchcock turn when a partygoer tells Wilson that he’s the number-one suspect in their murder mystery. Why not play it as everyone in town suspects Wilson, have Kindler play a bit off that, and then end with the Emerson quote?
The party ends and Kindler confronts Mary about inviting Wilson. She cries and yanks the beads from her necklace. The Maid spies this, and, after they’ve gone to bed, sneaks over to Judge Longstreet’s to relate the events to he and Wilson. The Judge reminds her, and us, that Mary’s life is in danger, and we’re further reminded by the next scene of Kindler sawing the rungs of the ladder up to the church tower and then making up a list, checking it twice, and underlining the phrase “Establish Time.”
He calls Mary, telling her to meet him at the church. Mary heads off, the Maid asks where she’s going, and Mary chews her out. The maid has a heart attack, causing Mary to call her brother to go to the tower himself and tell Kindler that she’ll be late. Noah tells Wilson, and the two head to the church.
Kindler meanwhile is camped in the General Store, ESTABLISHING TIME by playing checkers with the Clerk, and when two of the schoolmarms wander in, he makes certain to mention what time it is, and they ironically (and yes, I realize I’m not using “ironically” correctly; I’m using it ironically) chide him for being the Absent-Minded Professor when he, of course, is anything but. It’s a good touch, but by far my favorite part of this sequence is Kindler drawing a swastika while he’s on the phone.
It may be another instance of predetermination, but even to a mongoloid who’s seen all of two movies (say The Butterfly Effect and The Switch) and is unfamiliar with how subtle or how overt they can be would sniff Amiss among this. Yes, Kindler is a Nazi, and as we know, all Nazis will remain Nazis until they’re kaput, but would even a Nazi as clever and calculating as we’re supposed to believe Kindler is, would he casually draw a swastika in a public place and not realize he’s doing it? It does give Welles something to do while handling the dull task of delivering exposition, but, seriously Orson, a swastika? Are Nazis really that careless? Well, at the beginning of the film we did seeMeinike practicing his cover story on the deck of a steamer, surrounded not only by the usual boaters, but the very people he should suspect are tailing him.
Wilson and Noah head to the church, and in another Hitchcockian touch, ascend the adder, with the camera closing up on Wilson’s hand as the clutch each rung. Another good idea but too quickly executed, never lingered upon, to pay off. Kindler’s trap fails to kill, and Kindler heads home shocked on arrival (which would be a great title for a movie) to see Mary alive. He blows his top and it’s so good, it feels like a real movie again. Welles may have been comical destroying the room in Kane, but he sells the man unhinged here. Kindler accidentally slips the reveal that Mary should have been in the tower and immediately catches himself — the bug-eyes he’s sported the whole movie balloon as though he were an acrobat in the moment of seeing his wire cut. And as goodly blustering as he is, he’s upstaged by Young, who completely loses it when Mary realizes Kindler’s true identity and dares him to kill her, thrusting a fire poker into his hand. The scene has an immense amount of passion, highlighted by the distinct lack of it in the film so far. And yet, its power, like many of the other scenes in the film, is again diminished by the music, which plays too loud and too on point that it distracts rather than complements the drama.
Wilson and Noah arrive to find Kindler gone and Mary mid-faint. They take her to her room, and shortly after Mary awakes and heads to the church. Her absence alerts Noah and Wilson who follow. Wilson arrives and confronts Kindler, noting that every space has closed in on him as he backs Kindler into a corner. And Kindler, with the light masking half his face, his eyes once moer and for the last time ballooned, claims he was only following orders. Mary distracts Kindler, giving Wilson a chance to slap the gun from his hand, which Mary retrieves and begins shooting, missing Kindler but striking the gears of the clock. The twin figures of the knight and the devil spin rapidly around their track. Mary fires again and hits Kindler, who scurries up to the rafters and falls out onto the track, regaining his footing…only to be impaled by the knight and then tumbling hundreds of feet to his death. That’s three separate deaths — and while I’m not too surprised that Welles would be predicting some Hitchcock and Carol Reed in his films, I am very surprised that he even predicted Michael Bay. and speaking of Hitchcock, there’s one last Vertigo-esque shot of Welles impaled on the knight’s sword coming toward the camera as it zooms away from him.
Kindler dead, there’s a 30-second rush to the end with Wilson sitting atop the clock tower, asking for a new ladder. The end.
I opened by saying that The Stranger is Welles’ least favorite of his own films. Given some of the awkward cuts to and from many scenes, the straight-forward plot, and the overall sense of haste, I can understand it. However, there’s a lot of interesting things going on — for good or bad, the direction echoes (or predicts) classic Hitchcock; the theme of predestination is an especially nihilistic take from someone specializing in the darker aspects of human nature; portions of the dialogue seem stolen from a far superior movie; and the death — Jesus Christ, the death — is jaw-droppingly brutal. Unfortunately, even more than The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger is a mishmash of direction and pacing. It does provide a lot of things to talk about, but in terms of depth, they’re only starting points or meager observations.
Next time — THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)