Isn’t YouTube a marvellous resource? As a video library to delve into for few moments of pleasure it’s practically a bottomless pit of entertainment. The choices of things to watch are virtually limitless. But it should come with a warning just to remind you that it’s all too easy to end up spending hours rather than minutes of your spare time engrossed as you segue from one upload to the next. The suggestions that pop up at the end of each video do a fine job of enticing continued viewing.
But aside from the cute videos of pets and babies and the millions of other “caught on camera” moments, YouTube is for me, a great film library. Thanks to a copyright lapse in many old classic films, there are a plethora of great movies available and just one click away. I found one such film this morning. The Stranger from 1946 starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Orson Welles (who also directed) is a superbly put together drama that, thanks to its style, is also a fine example of film noir. Robinson is always good to watch and with great support from Welles and Young, the hour and a half that this film runs for, simply flies by.
Edward G. Robinson plays Mr Wilson – a “detective, of sorts” for the United Nations War Crimes Commission – who is hunting down a Nazi fugitive called Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Kindler, having carefully erased all evidence of his former life and assumed a new identity – Charles Rankin – is now a prep school teacher in small town U.S.A. On the day we meet him, he marries Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young) who happens to be the daughter of the local Supreme Court Justice. In short, he’s managed to transform himself from a Nazi war criminal into a pillar of an American community.
Wilson releases Kindler’s former right-hand man Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) from prison in the hope that he will lead him to Kindler which of course, he does. All the way to the pretty town of Harper, Connecticut. But he loses him before he makes contact with Kindler. When Meinike (now a religious convert) and Kindler do meet, he begs his former superior to repent and to confess his sins. However, Kindler, afraid of being exposed by his former associate, strangles him instead.
The story unravels in a gripping, almost claustrophobic way as the determined hound chases down the wily fox. Wilson is pretty sure Rankin and Kindler are one and the same but without having witnessed Meinike meeting with him, he had no proof. So it’s left to Father Time and Kindler’s own fear at being exposed, a fear that will force him to make a paranoiac mistake – to betray his true identity to his pursuers.
As a screenplay, it’s a wonderfully taut piece of writing (Oscar nominated too) with very good dialogue – particularly from the authoritative figure of Wilson. Edward G. Robinson plays this to perfection and he lends his character an intelligent doggedness that is simply believable. Welles is also excellent at conveying a man desperately trying to hide something while Loretta Young is convincing as the new wife who refuses to accept that she fell in love with the wrong man. The town is dotted with other great characters too, in particular, Mr Potter the town clerk and proprietor of the local store/diner. He’s a hoot whenever he’s on screen.
Apart from the opening few minutes, all of the action takes place in Harper – a pretty little town where “there’s nothing to be afraid of” as quoted by Mary Longstreet. For a fugitive, it seems an ideal refuge but of course, for a local it seems like the last place on earth where something like that would occur. Welles’s direction confines us within the town, never giving us any long shot vistas of space and scenery, helping to create the sense of suffocation that Kindler must be feeling as his past captures up with him and his world closes in. Welles’ camera moves beautifully too on cranes and dollies and there are a few reminders of his Citizen Kane brilliance with emotive use of light and shadow in some of the interior shots as well as a lovely reflection in a camera lens. The film builds beautifully to a highly charged climax of which the set piece brings to mind Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Curiously, The Stranger was the only film made by Welles that had any impact at the box office upon its original release. Hard to believe considering how highly some of his work is now regarded. Coming out shortly after the Second World War perhaps its anti-Nazi theme and the fact that war criminal fugitives really did exist, caught the public’s imagination. It contains, supposedly for the first time in a feature film, actual footage of concentration camps and although what we see is brief, together with Edward G. Robinson’s dialogue, it’s enough to horrify.
Overall then, The Stranger is a great waste of an hour and a half.