Professor Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) is an apparently normal history teacher-cum-clock enthusiast who is newly wedded to the lovely Mary (Loretta Young). Little does she know that her new hubby is secretly Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler, hiding under a new identity.
This thriller lays its cards on the table from the start, preferring to focus on the couple’s shifting relationship as the net closes around Kindler than major new plot revelations. Made in 1946, at a time when wartime propaganda had painted Nazis as a foreign monster, far removed from the everyday lives of real people, The Stranger dares to show a Nazi as indistinguishable from ordinary Americans. And at the time of its release may have even played on lingering fears of Hitler’s own escape to the Americas.
As Rankin blends in, we’re forced to confront the idea that the difference between us and the Nazis might not be as great as we thought, and Mary’s denial of his identity, even after the truth is revealed to her, shows how easy it is to be complicit through denial.
Welles simultaneously perfects both the all-American Rankin and the agitated, repressed Nazi, piercing eyes darting around as he tries to scheme his way to freedom. Young is also excellent as his doting, but (inveitably for the time) simple wife, and the core cast is rounded off by Edward G. Robinson, as special investigator Mr Wilson (he previously starred in The Woman in the Window by real-life German émigré Fritz Lang, although Lang was fleeing the Nazis).
Welles shows many of the same techniques he would later employ in the masterful Touch of Evil, including heavy use of night shooting and long, dark shadows. It also features clock tower sequences to rival Vertigo and one of the most spectacular deaths in movie history, resulting in a gripping and memorable thriller which is well awesome.