“No, you must not miss the newsreels. They make a point this week no man can miss: The war has strewn the world with corpses, none of them very nice to look at. The thought of death is never pretty but the newsreels testify to the fact of quite another sort of death, quite another level of decay. This is a putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage. For some years now we have been calling it Fascism. The stench is unendurable.”
Those words were written in 1945 by director Orson Welles. He was writing about the footage that had been filmed at the Nazi concentration camps during the final days of World War II. These films not only revealed the crimes of the Third Reich but they also proved the existence of evil. With World War II finally ended and Hitler dead, many people were eager to move on and forget about the conflict. Many even claimed (and some continue to do to this very day) that the reports of the Nazi death camps were exaggerated. Writing in his syndicated column for the New York Post, Welles told those doubters that the reports of the Nazi death camps were not exaggerated and that, unless people confronted the horrors of the Nazi regime by watching the newsreels and seeing for themselves, history would repeat itself.
A year later, Welles would use that documentary footage in a key scene of his 1946 film, The Stranger. A government agent named Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) shows the footage to Mary Longstreet Rankin (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice. Wilson is hoping that, by showing her the footage, he’ll be able to convince her to help him bring a Nazi war criminal to justice. Complicating things is that Wilson believe that the Nazi war criminal is Mary’s new husband, Professor Charles Rankin (played by Orson Welles, himself).
Rankin’s real name is Franz Kindler. One of the architects of the Holocaust, he escaped from Germany at the end of World War II and, after making his way through Latin America, he ended up in a small town in Connecticut. He got a job at the local prep school, where he instructs impressionable young minds. He also found the time to work on the town’s 300 year-old clock.
When we first see Kindler/Rankin, he’s walking out of the school and it’s obvious that all of his students love him. Rankin has a quick smile, which he uses whenever he has to talk to Mary or any of the other townspeople. However, that smile disappears as soon as he’s approached by another Nazi fugitive, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne). Rankin assures Meinike that he’s merely biding his time until he can establish a Fourth Reich. Meinike, meanwhile, announces that he’s found God and he suggests that Rankin should turn himself in. Correctly deducing the Meinike is being followed by Wilson, Rankin promptly strangles his former collaborator and spends the rest of the movie trying to cover up his crimes.
Welles was best known for playing characters who had the potential for greatness in them but who were ultimately brought down by their own flaws. Think about Charles Foster Kane or Harry Lime or the detective in Touch of Evil or even Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. The Stranger is unique as one of the few instances in which Welles played an outright villain. Unlike Kane or Falstaff, there’s no greatness to be found in Rankin/Kindler. He’s fooled the town into thinking that he’s a good man but, instead, he’s a soulless sociopath who is even willing to murder his wife if that’s what he has to do to protect his secret. Franz Kindler is the Third Reich and, by having him thrive under a new name in America, Welles argues that the Nazi threat didn’t end just because Hitler killed himself in Berlin.
And that’s an important message. It was an important message in 1946 and, I would argue, it’s an even more important message today. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in both America and Europe, with activists on both the Left and the Right embracing the type of bigotry and conspiracy-mongering that previously allowed madmen like Adolf Hitler to come to power. Just today, I read a story about a Jewish professor at Columbia who arrived at work on Wednesday, just to discover that someone had vandalized her office with anti-Semitic graffiti. Watching The Stranger today, it’s important to remember that the Franz Kindlers of the world are still out there and many of them are just as good at disguising themselves as Charles Rankin as Kindler was.
The Stranger was Welles’s third completed film as a director. It was a film that he reportedly agreed to direct in order to prove that he was capable of bring in a film on budget and ahead-of-schedule. Because Welles was largely acting as a director-for-hire on this film, there’s a tendency to overlook The Stranger when discussing Welles’s films. While that’s understandable, The Stranger is clearly a Welles film. From the use of shadow to the skewed camera angles, the film has all of Welles’s visual trademarks. Thematically, this is another one of Welles’s films about a man who is hiding a secret underneath his ordinary facade.
It’s a good film, with Welles giving an appropriately evil performance as Kindler and Loretta Young providing strong support as Mary. That said, the film’s soul is to be found in Edward G. Robinson’s performance. Robinson was born Emmanuel Goldenberg in Romania. In 1904, his family fled to America after one of his brothers was attacked by an anti-Semitic mob. As someone who had experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, Robinson brought a righteous fury to the role of Mr. Wilson. Wilson isn’t just pursuing a fugitive in The Stranger. Instead, he’s seeking justice for the six million Jews who were murdered by men like Franz Kindler.
The Stranger is an important film and it seems like the right film with which to end my 30 Days of Noir. Noirvember is ending and so ends our 30-day walk through the shadowy streets of noir cinema.