The Stranger is not a remarkable film, but it does a good job with what it sets out to do. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt made three years prior; The Stranger is a small-town thriller with a lot of suspense. It’s a rather routine plot, but Welles’ direction keeps things moving along.
In the small town of Harper, Connecticut, an exiled Nazi returns to warn a colleague of his, the notorious Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) of the pursuit of government agent Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). Kindler is hiding out as a professor of the local college, under the name Charles Rankin, and is due to marry the daughter of a judge, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young) to complete his all-American image. He kills his colleague to cover his tracks, but not before the entire town notices him acting strangely. With Mr. Wilson on his trail, Kindler/Rankin has to keep his secret safe, which puts his new wife in danger.
The film really does bear a lot of comparison to Shadow of a Doubt. The first half is characters finding out each other’s murderous ways, and the second half is a game of cat and mouse, unbeknownst to most of the small town inhabitants. Like Shadow of a Doubt the film would be much better without the intrusion of the police, the stakes would have been much higher and the whole film more suspenseful if it weren’t a forgone conclusion that the police would catch the villain in the end. However, I have to say that Robinson, though playing a bland character, is a solid addition to the cast unlike what’s his name the complete failure of a cop who falls in love with Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt.
The acting is fine, the plot is pretty standard, and though Welles’ direction is more laid-back than in Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, it’s basically the reason you’re watching this film. His use of shadows is great, and there are some extreme angles that are very effective. This is especially apparent in the film’s greatest set-piece, the clock tower. Welles is able to establish the height of the tower very well through extreme low and high angle shots, making the scenes that take place there feel all the more dangerous. There are also some callbacks to silent cinema, with a few matte transitions and irises.
The Stranger is not a great film, but it’s a perfectly decent one. If I graded this way, I would give it a 3.25 because it’s too standard to give a 3.5 to but it is directed well. I wish the characters had had more depth; Young’s Mary is too goody-goody and Welles’ Kindler is basically pure evil. The story doesn’t really have problems so much that it just settles for being a paint-by-numbers thriller. Regardless, the results are pretty entertaining.
“In Harper, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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