Friday, August 4, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Stranger, July 1946

Our last noir review took in a 1947 Orson Welles film; moving back in time, let's look at his lesser-known movie The Stranger.

Welles himself plays the villainous main character, Franz Kindler, a clockwork-obsessed high-ranking Nazi fugitive who has somehow already gotten himself a job as a prep school teacher (alias Charles Rankin) in one of those irritatingly picturesque New England towns you see in movies. What's more, he's engaged to be married to the daughter of a Supreme Court justice! Their wedding takes place in the first few minutes of the movie, right after he murders his former right-hand man Meinike and buries his body in the woods.

Edward G. Robinson plays the investigator who tails Meinike into town, hoping the little fish will lead him to a bigger fish. Loretta Young plays the wife who gradually discovers that she's married to a monster.

The plot is fairly suspenseful. For someone like me, though, who enjoys noirs for their skewed morality, there's not a lot going on here. The villain is indubitably wicked and portrayed without an ounce of sympathy. He's not even interesting. The investigator is a stolid, righteous man bent on bringing an evildoer to justice. The wife is good and kind, and carefully absolved of psychological collusion. Her deadly coolness at the end does a lot to redeem the movie. For the most part, though, it's unworthy of its director.

Still, The Stranger does have some nice touches. The garrulous checkers-playing drugstore owner (Billy House) steals every scene he's in, even when he shares it with Edward G. Robinson. A couple of scenes move fluidly from the street into the drugstore, and there are some other subtle long takes.

Apart from a bizarre, impassioned anti-German speech intended to throw the investigator off the scent, Kindler's ideology doesn't play a big role – he could have been any kind of criminal, really – but the film does make use of some actual death camp footage, which is a bit shocking even at this distance and must have been much more so at the time. Now that's moral grayness for you: using one of the greatest atrocities the world has ever known as fodder for a trite thriller not two years after Auschwitz closed.

Nietzsche isn't mentioned by name, but I suspect that Welles tried to make his character resemble the famous photo portrait of the philosopher.

Nietzsche has been widely blamed (somewhat unjustly, I believe) for having inspired the Nazis. He adulated Frederick the Great, as the Nazis also did, and Kindler is shown delivering a lecture on Frederick to his prep school students.

The Stranger is in the public domain; you can watch it here.

* * *

I give The Stranger a grade of C for commonplace on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
It's not a bad movie, but it's more of a Hitchcock-style thriller than a true noir. Film noir is about good, ordinary, decent people being guilty, not about evil monsters being guilty. High points in The Stranger include the strangulation scene, the drugstore checkers games, and the clock tower confrontation.

Takeaway quote from The Stranger:

"Good night, Mary. Pleasant dreams."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue DahliaThe Lost WeekendGilda and The Lady from Shanghai ***

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