The Stranger

The Stranger. International Pictures 1946.

Before watching the movie:

As much as personalized algorithmic suggestions tend to point me toward things I want to watch, they tend to get trained more narrowly than my tastes actually are, and they’re limited by what’s been made available based on what the userbase as a whole wants to see. So sometimes it’s a refreshing change of pace to just go to the library and see what jumps off the shelf.

Perhaps a learning AI trained on the entire back catalog of my blog and having the entire history of Hollywood movies to choose from might suggest a 40s Orson Welles thriller about searching out an escaped Nazi officer, but it doesn’t seem likely.

After watching the movie:

Determined to flush out a notorious Nazi officer, Mr. Wilson allows another Nazi, Meinike, to escape from prison, believing Meinike will lead him to Franz Kindler. Meinike runs to Harper, Connecticut and immediately finds Kindler, now living under the name Charles Rankin, about to marry Mary, daughter of liberal Supreme Court justice Longstreet. Kindler tells Meinike he plans to live this life in the last place anyone would look for him until the Reich rises again, then kills him to protect his secret. Wilson suspects Rankin of being his target, but without Meinike, he can’t prove anything.

Few movies from this time have stylized cinematography like this. It isn’t as pronounced as Citizen Kane, but it was enough to notice. The camera is in love with mirrors in a way that is usually avoided for practicality, and shots are often set up in unusual angles. It’s not important that we see that the shopkeep cheats at checkers, but the framing is such that it is casually called to attention. Close-ups, and varied close-ups, seem to be used more frequently than in other movies of the day.

I thought for a moment that Rankin might have had a change of heart as he slipped into his new life, but the movie makes it clear very early on that everything about the life of “Charles Rankin” is a deliberate act to throw people off the trail as he bides his time. In later times, a movie might have been more nuanced, depicting a man trying to put his past behind him and caught in a tightening web as everything catches up to him, but I appreciate that this Nazi has been putting on a publicly respectable act and is fully ready to come out of the woodwork when it seems safe. It may be over the top to have him be the secret architect of the Holocaust, but it’s never been more believable that an unrepentant monster would cloak himself in a friendlier persona and wait for a favorable change in the wind.

It’s unfortunate that the danger posed to Mary by being part of Rankin’s disposable cover ends up leading her to spend much of the movie being a conflicted damsel. There are more active ways she could have been caught in the drama, but it’s the 40s, so half the movie is about the heroic men trying to keep her safe from her husband as he gaslights her.

This movie may not have even been as relevant in its time as it seems now. Apparently Welles meant to use it to publicize the horrors of the Holocaust that many found unbelievable at the time, but only one scene is really about that, and Judgment at Nuremberg is far more effective at painting a picture of what happened in Europe. This is more about the possibility that someone close to you might be hiding unconscionable views and be ready to put them into practice given the opportunity. Which is almost more chilling.

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