While the end of World War II put the kibosh on active global conflict, it also opened a fresh can o’ worms.
War-weary folks now faced a new set of issues, such as conducting military tribunals and pursuing fugitive war criminals.
Director Orson Welles tackled the subject of Nazis on the Run in the 1946 indie thriller, The Stranger. Welles stars as a popular and well-respected college professor with a dark secret: He’s a former German Nazi who helped engineer the Jewish holocaust.
Welles’s character has fooled Everyone in the small Connecticut town where he now resides. He’s newly married to a beautiful woman (Loretta Young) who’s madly in love with him, even though, we notice, he’s not in love with her.
But his carefully-woven life is about to unravel. A former associate (Konstantin Shayne) has escaped Allied custody in Germany and fled to America. Unhappily for Welles, Shayne’s escape was no accident; he’s being used as bait to flush out bigger Nazis, a plan concocted by investigator Edward G. Robinson.
Robinson follows Shayne to Welles’s new town, where he ingratiates himself with Young’s family – much to Welles’s chagrin – and it soon becomes a question of who will Slip Up first: Robinson or Welles.
This cat-and-mouse game creates an uneasy atmosphere in a laid-back community where everyone is on a first-name basis and no one locks their front door.
The Stranger tells us to read between the lines: You’re not as safe as you think.
Although Loretta Young wasn’t always praised as a Great Actress, she’s believable and sympathetic as a woman trying not to see the truth about her husband.
For example, watch as she hosts a dinner party, to which Robinson has been invited. Naturally, discussion turns to geopolitics, and Welles snaps, “Marx wasn’t a German. Marx was a Jew.” This raises a Red Flag to us, the audience, but Young brushes the comment aside: More coffee, anyone?
Welles depends on her unquestioning love to maintain his cover. Surely the United States wouldn’t harbour war criminals, is the unspoken assumption, and this allows him to hide in Plain Sight.
But it also underscores his hypocrisy.
Welles’s character lives a Good Life. He works in academia, he lives in a picturesque town, he’s married to a smart, beautiful woman.
Which brings us to his other secret, his plan to rebuild a Nazi utopia in North America, where he intends to Rise to Power once again.
In other words, he’s happy to benefit from a prosperous and democratic society, until he’s ready to destroy it.
That’s why a country like the United States (c.a. 1940s) is crucial to his Master Plan. Germany, spent and devastated, is no longer of use.
They say Orson Welles regarded The Stranger as his worst film, but that may be his chafing against constraints, e.g. the non-negotiable budget and schedule.
But look at what he did with those “constraints”. When you watch the film, you’ll notice Welles ratchets the tension and employs unconventional camera angles to knock you off-kilter. It feels almost avant-garde.
Also: The Stranger is the first Hollywood film to use real footage of the Holocaust, according to Deep Focus Review.
“What remains curious is that no one stopped Welles from using actual footage from the liberation of concentration camps,” writes Brian Eggert. “In the film, [Robinson] must convince [Young] that her husband…is the mastermind of the Holocaust. To accomplish this, he shows [her] a short reel of footage from a concentration camp to illustrate the inhumanity of Nazis.”¹
The film was a box office success, and was nominated for an Oscar (Best Original Screenplay). However, film critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was unimpressed. “For the premise is not only farfetched,” he wrote, “but the whole construction of the tale relieves very soon all the mystery and suspense that such a story should have.”²
Of course we disagree with dear ol’ Bosley, and we hope you will, too, if you get a chance to see The Stranger*.
¹Deep Focus Reviews. (Retrieved July 25, 2020.) The Stranger (1946) by Brian Eggert.
²Wikipedia. (Retrieved July 25, 2020.) The Stranger (1946 Film).
*Incredibly, The Stranger is in the public domain, and you can view it on YouTube.
The Stranger: starring Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young. Directed by Orson Welles. Written by Anthony Veiller. United Artists, 1946, B&W, 95 mins.