The Stranger (1946)--Few filmmakers have the sort of reputation bestowed upon Orson Welles. On one hand, Welles is the genius responsible for what many consider to be the greatest American film of all time--Citizen Kane--while, on the other, there is the bloated mass of a man whose final years were spent hawking cheap wine on television. His is a cautionary tale of ambition and talent pitted against the megalithic entity of the studio system--a temperamental filmmaker with a vision that was often restrained by the powers that were.
In addition to Citizen Kane, Welles is best remembered for The Magnificent Ambersons--his second film, which solidified his reputation for being difficult to work with--and his eighth movie, Touch of Evil. It is Welles' third film, The Stranger, however, that remains one of the director's least known and appreciated--and the one most quickly dismissed by highbrow film critics.
The film's story begins after World War II, as Franz Kindler (Welles), one of the evil Nazi masterminds behind the concentration camps, escapes Europe. Kindler makes his way to America, where he assumes the identity of Dr. Charles Rankin, a respected professor at a private school in Connecticut. Hot on Kindler's trail is Mr. Wilson, an ace Nazi hunter played by Edward G. Robinson. There's only one problem: Wilson doesn't know what Kindler looks like (conveniently, no pictures exist of the devilish man). Wilson finally tracks his nefarious foe, but he must still determine who his prey is, before Kindler can revive the Third Reich.
The Stranger represents an odd chapter in the career of Orson Welles. It is often considered to be Welles' attempt to prove that he could work within the confines of a studio, and in doing so, produce a film on time and on budget. As such, some people view The Stranger as Welles selling out. The reality is that the film only further solidifies the director's reputation for genius. Even under the creative and financial constraints imposed by the studio, the purity of Welles' talent is apparent. Director of photography Russell Metty contrasts a starkly lit, small-town America with the dark, shadowy world of Nazi war criminals in hiding. This polarity captures both the post-war optimism of the country and the lingering dread that Nazism's evil may have endured the fall of Berlin.
Theme and style aside, what truly elevates The Stranger to the level of forgotten classic are the assured performances of the cast, including Loretta Young as Kindler/Rankin's unsuspecting fiancée. Welles gives his most sinister performance ever as the Nazi on the run, surpassing even his villainous turns in The Third Man and Touch of Evil (OK, maybe not Touch of Evil). Meanwhile, Edward G. Robinson serves as a reminder that there was once a time when the quality of an action hero was measured by his abilities as an actor, not by how well he tested with the teen demographic.