A few months ago, in another chapter in the Silver Screen Streak Movie Challenge, I finally watched Orson Welles' sophomore directing effort, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), a production during which Welles notoriously clashed with the studio, resulting in a butchered theatrical release that was a magnificent-looking box office flop. Since his first movie, Citizen Kane (1941), also failed to find an audience initially, Welles' career stalled. He was (accurately) considered difficult and stubbornly attached to excessive ambitions that promised poor financial return to any studio willing to endure the headache of dealing with him.
In 1945, however, independent producer Sam Spiegel challenged Welles to prove he could direct a simple b-movie noir and do it on-schedule and under-budget. Welles not only succeeded within his assigned parameters, but The Stranger (1946) is a bold noir thriller with no shortage of adventurous Welles flourishes despite its smaller scale.
Edward G. Robinson stars as a United Nations investigator tracking Nazi war criminals who fled Germany under assumed identities and is led to a cozy New England town where he suspects one of the architects of the Holocaust has recently set down roots. His suspicion falls on the newest arrival in town, Professor Charles Rankin (Welles), who teaches at the local prep school and is engaged to be married to Mary (Loretta Young), the daughter of a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
From the opening scenes with Konstantin Shayne (a poor man's Peter Lorre, if there ever was one) pursued by shadowy figures, Welles announces that no budget constraints are going to neuter his cinematic energy, and he keeps up his virtuoso instincts with some impressive long takes. The Stranger may be lowkey for Welles, but it's intermittently dazzling and moreso, I think, than his more famous subsequent noir, The Lady from Shanghai, which falls apart as a narrative. The Stranger is a solid thriller with a plot that must've seemed bold in 1946 — and includes a few tame excerpts of the Army footage shot during the liberation of Nazi concentration camps — plus that wry, mordant humor and an array of colorful minor characters that makes Welles' movies crackle as content beyond their technical prowess.
One thing that I love about Welles is that despite his considerable ego (because of, more likely), he seems to revel in casting himself as deeply unlikable characters and then challenging himself to outperform their egregious failings, either through his enormous charm or the gusto with which he can inject pathos into their tiny, corroded hearts. The Stranger may be a minor point in the constellation of heavyweights like Charles Foster Kane, Hank Quinlan (in Touch of Evil (1958)), Albert Hastler (The Trial (1962)), his Shakespearean tragedies, and even Harry Lime (in the Carol Reed-directed The Third Man (1949)), but Franz Kindler is a self-loathing creep worthy of that dubious elevated company.