As outlined in last week's note, The Stranger was not initiated by Orson Welles, neither was he empowered by the film's producer to tamper very much with the screenplay as carefully designed within a definite budget. The final film is scarcely a cardinal Welles work. Even on a sheerly visual basis, The Stranger lacks the density of organization so characteristic of his work. The script, in which Welles did have a hand, contains its share of loopholes and some of the melodramatic complications (Wilson's sprained ankle, for instance) come on too fast toward the conclusion. Indeed, the whole film is often loosely damned as melodramatic, though to the extent that that implies a legitimate criticism, I think Bronislaw Kaper's overstressed music score is largely responsible. But when all that has been acknowledged, The Stranger remains an honorable contract job completed by Welles to the producer's satisfaction and subsequent profit, an intriguing suspense picture, and a film that demonstrably does participate in the by-now-recognizable Welles universe.
The picture's most insistent achievement is its atmosphere. Retrospectively, Welles claimed to be most pleased with the South American night city where Konrad Meineke goes searching for information about Franz Kindler. He says about half his footage is gone from the release prints. What remains is graced with lavishly Germanic lighting by Russell Metty (one of the repairers of Ambersons, later cameraman on Touch of Evil) which creates a three-dimensional texture of light and dark areas over and through which the characters slip like eels. The camerawork is more than accomplished: it momentarily evokes that spirit of Wellesian bravado without which no risks are taken and little distinction attained. This is especially notable in an intricately sinuous, backtracking shot that observes the female agent following Meineke through several right angles (much of this shot regrettably obscured by an editor aiming for concision at the expense of a singular take) or another that brings her out of a storm drain like some tenacious vermin, the shadow of Meineke's head topping her body as she climbs up to street level.
Personally, I prize more highly the loving evocation of a New England college town, white housefronts adrift amid a sea of autumn leaves, an archetypal American community nurturing a cancer in its midst. Potter's store is a masterpiece of detail accreted over a lifetime of serving as unofficial community center; its window giving on the town square, its rudely lettered warnings and cons (NO STUGS PLEASE, HARD CANDY WHILE THEY LAST—the stock goes up, not down in the course of the film), its smug, homely motto ("All your needs are on our shelves/ Just look around and help yourselves!"), the amused good humor with which the prep school boys guide Mr. Wilson to the coffee, all evoke a persuasively three-dimensional sense of mythic reality. The seasonal feel of the place advances the narrative, the leaves that cover Meineke's body subsequently being burned away, the ground-hugging smoke replaced in turn by an austerely purifying snow. Harper is one of the cinema's great towns.
It is interesting to speculate about the degree to which The Stranger has altered its focus between 1945 and 1972. Most of the shift is felt through the character of Wilson, the Allied War Crimes commissioner rooting out escaped Nazis round the globe. Just after the war, audiences would have felt nothing but horror for the designer of Hitler's most efficient extermination camps, and the small, sincere, dedicated man on his trail would doubtlessly have seemed entirely sympathetic, even admirable. But the lapse of time has tended to transform polarity into ambivalence. Wilson is introduced Lang-style as a black back of a head out of which the camera pulls to cover the opening exposition, drawing back in again as Wilson's intensity compels the cautious Allied commission to act: "If I fail, I'm responsible. You can threaten me with the bottom pits of Hell and still I insist. This obscenity must be destroyed—you hear me, destroyed!" Whereupon he breaks his pipe, which is noticeably taped together for the remainder of the film. Wilson's desire for justice, for purgation (he keeps speaking of "obscenity"), verges on mania. Meineke, the fanatical Nazi turned miracle Christian, suggests an extension of him to the point of madness. (Meineke recognizes Wilson as "the Evil One" and the townsfolk consider him the prime murder suspect.) It is significant that Meineke can rationalize his attack on Wilson: "I killed him—striking from on high, down. God's will be done." Much of the film counterpoints Rankin/Kindler's using people to Wilson's similarly manipulative behavior: his playing on Noah Longstreet's slightly peculiar love for his sister ("I know you're man enough for what I'm going to ask you to do for her"), his recognition of Potter's curiosity about Meineke's bag (we see Potter tempted to adjust the checker pieces behind Wilson's artfully turned back, and an item advertised on the mirror behind them is something called Potter's Temptation), his self-admittedly coldblooded plan to set Mary up for a nervous breakdown and possibly murder. Particularly suggestive is his little picture show for Mary; his shadow falls on the images of concentration camp atrocities as Rankin's (in anticipation of two scenes in Macbeth) falls on Mary's bed; Wilson is another Welles protagonist capable of using media to support his personal agenda. It would be hard to deny that Wilson's mission is a just one, and simplistic to suggest that Mary Rankin could be relieved of her psychic burden without considerable pain. Still, in Wilson we can see the seeds of Touch of Evil's Hank Quinlan, not to mention a representative of the authority so lavishly mocked and symbolically wrecked in the courtroom scene and its aftermath in Lady from Shanghai.
Seen in the light of other Welles characters, Rankin/Kindler almost comes off as a sympathetic figure, and not only because the schoolboys kid him about his waistline. Like his incarnator, he is fascinated with time, and with realizing time with machine precision. Like such bereft creatures as Kane and George Minafer, he feels a nostalgia—not, in his case, for what he has lost, but for what he knows he cannot have: the shining, gullible innocence of a Mary Longstreet. When he tells her he loves her, something besides ironical manipulation throbs in his voice; he does love her as Kane loved and needed Susan Alexander, "a cross-section of the American public." By now we should be able to understand his impulse, however grotesque its implementation here, to accommodate the rest of the world to his vision. His hubris goes so far as to name himself a kind of God, looking down on the little people of Harper "like ants."* Like Kane and Othello, he has his world persistently reduced, asWilsonpoints out: from the whole world to Harper, from Harper to the tower, from the tower to the very room where the clockwork gears turn; and that room expels him at the last. Cowering in the darkness, a sweating babyish face, he protests that he only took orders, that he—unlike Wilson—is "not responsible." Welles clearly loathes Kindler's moral cowardice, yet he will not turn him into as much of a caricature as, say, sluglike Mr. Potter, who does give orders in Harper.
* I wonder where that line was first used—its earliest visual realization in the cinema may come in Lang's Metropolis (1927), and it is implicitly to be seen in Buñuel and Dalí's Un Chien Andalou (1929) when the young man with the ants in his hand looks down into the street and wills the death of his androgynous counterpart.