I am a semi-fan of film noir. The angular style of it built on as many shadows as shadowy characters. The films are by and large on dark subjects, typically crime and specifically murder. The unfortunate thing about this genre is that there are at least as many bad versions as good. Orson Welles’s 1946 film The Stranger is part of the first category—it is quite bad (but for one exception).
Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is a member of a war crimes commission in post-Nazi Germany. At the start of the film, he fights the other members to insist on not locking the doors for one prisoner to escape. The reason behind this is that Mr. Wilson believes the prisoner, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), will lead them to the (fictional) architect of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler. The chase leads to a small Connecticut town. Here, Meinike looks for a man called Charles Rankin (Orson Welles). Meinike is there to try to convert Kindler/Rankin into a Christian so he can be forgiven for his atrocities. Not wanting to face potentially fatal consequences, Kindler/Rankin kills Meinike. As it would happen, this is just hours before Kindler/Rankin marries Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale). The rest of the film is the noir bit as Mr. Wilson’s noose tightens around Rankin/Kindler.
Plot spoiler warning—however the film is so predictable that this hardly matters
I should cover the good parts first, and there are a couple. First, Edward G. Robinson is fantastic; it is a shame that his brilliant performance should be wasted on the film. Part investigator, part counselor, he plays both a tough and gentle role seamlessly.
Billy House (Mr. Potter) is likewise fantastic. He is the owner of the pharmacy and soda shop and is the town clerk. He spends all day sitting near the cash register. Even though the store is built to have more employees, Mr. Potter decides to make the soda counter self-serve. Mr. Potter is lively and funny. He is a checkers addict, too and has the habit of putting on a visor when he is playing a game, as if jumping into another role, that of a gambler. Very little comes out of his mouth that isn’t funny. The only complaint I have is one of my top five movie peeves—accents. The town is in Connecticut but Billy House uses an accent akin to middle Virginia instead. I cold suspend disbelief here but it is a peeve so it is going to resist the total suspension.
Other than that, the film is predictable, unnecessarily stylized, and not interesting. About the only potentially unique aspect of the film is that it covers Nazi exiles in 1946, this is before the Nuremburg trials end, so it is topical even if it is terrible.
There are plot holes and wasted tangential storylines that weren’t necessary at all. The plot holes centered mainly around hard to believe coincidences. Kindler/Rankin explains to Meinike that marrying a Supreme Court Justice would give him the perfect cover. Yes that is true, but how did he get this daughter to fall in love with him—it doesn’t even approach credibility. How could a man who spoke German all his life have a refined American accent in such a short time?
Worse still are the performances by Mr. Welles and Ms. Young. Mr. Welles opted for a kabuki like over emotive face. Instead of looking somewhat trapped but trusting in his abilities, he spends most of his time looking like is eyes are bugging out of his head as if permanently surprised. The best parallel I can think of is the way soap opera actors contort their faces in the most unbelievable ways. Ms. Young, on the other hand, is all Stepford all the time, except as she begins to crack under the realization that the man she is married to is a Nazi. Then she becomes one of those wholly tiresome wilting flowers.
I never have understood why these women faint at the slightest provocation. I haven’t seen all of their films, but I’ve never seen Kate Hepburn, Bette Davis, or Lauren Bacall faint or even swoon. This is what fed the myth of the ‘weaker’ sex. I just wonder what women of the day thought when they watched films like this. Did they sit quietly offended or was it just something they came to expect given that Hollywood used the idiotic trope so often.
Analysis over, no spoilers below
I won’t give the film 1 star because Mr. Robinson and Mr. House are certainly worth watching; however I cannot give it more than two and cannot recommend it generally. I would say more, but this is one of the few bad films that I’m not even compelled to go into the other things that are wrong with it—this is almost unheard of (or unread of) for this reviewer.
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