THE STRANGER: Welles' Bright Light Shown on Nazis in America; Only Now Being Confessed!.

May 20, 2004 (Updated Jun 11, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:What is left of the Huston-Welles idea. The "paper chase" sequence. Robinson, Shayne.

Cons:The 20-30 minute cut, the Movie's substantive heart. Hence, certain thin motivations and development.

The Bottom Line: THE STRANGER is an entertaining commercial thriller. Orson Welles and his friend, John Huston, intended it be much more; that it be a warning and a caution to Post-War America.

"They searched the woods. I watched them here, like God looking at ants." -- Charles Rankin/Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), in THE STRANGER (1946).

The words are a metaphor for megalomania and fascism in the early work of Orson Welles; indeed a lifelong theme for his films, and an admonition in his own life. We may see the idea expressed in words and images again and again (by Charles Foster Kane at Xanadu (CITIZEN KANE); by Colonel Haki of the Turkish Secret Police (JOURNEY INTO FEAR); by the fascistic lawyer Grisby (Glenn Anders) high on a mountain above Acapulco (LADY FROM SHANGHAI); Cagliastro above the crowd (BLACK MAGIC) . . . Most memorably, for the popular mind, in THE THIRD MAN (Reed, 1949), by Harry Lime, atop a Ferris Wheel in Vienna. Etc. Etc.) The metaphor is the equivalent of "connecting the dots," a figure of American speech much used, in various contexts, since 911.

Kindler is an escaped Nazi who has adopted the disguise of a social science teacher in Connecticut. As Charles Rankin, he is well-accepted at Harper School (a kind of Philips Andover) and in the community, especially for taking on a love labor, restoring to operation the town's colonial tower clock, with its ancient Avenging Angel chasing the Devil across its face, on the hour, every hour. In fact, almost surprisingly, he has just managed to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice (Philip Merivale). The Kindler within, however, still harbors the glories of Nazism, and one gathers, looks forward to the establishment of a German Fourth Reich in America.

When this film was released in May 1946, THE STRANGER was thought by the public to be a well-made, if farfetched thriller; for Welles, his only Hollywood film to make money during its initial run; and by some critics, the second or third disappointment of Welles' film directorial career, hailed spectacular, a few years earlier, after CITIZEN KANE. But, unknown then to many, THE STRANGER, like most Welles' films following his masterpiece, had been cut nearly 30 minutes by the producers. Welles was always more interested in "the how and why" of his stories than in "the what." However, Hollywood studios he worked for wanted to exploit his way with actors and camera setups; they expressed irritation at his social and philosophical ideas, which were considered "political": not commercial. [They would have preferred him to simply accept routine assignments, or act in the conventional pictures made by their own contract directors.]

The words quoted above from the end of THE STRANGER were to have been spoken really at the beginning of the picture, as Rankin, confessing to Wife Mary his past Kindler identity, stood within the clock mechanism, watching the enraged Harper townfolk gathering below, as if ready to destroy a Frankenstein Monster. Then a long flashback would show how Kindler, a bureaucrat/philosopher who planned the German concentration death camps, made his way, by what were later known as "ratlines," to South America. Kindler had seen to it all his records and extant photos were destroyed, had altered his appearance and fingerprints by plastic surgery. A man with an erased past, he was given a new identity and guided to America, to New England, in a feat accomplished more easily then, one would think, than it would be in our computer age now.

[Who exactly gave him the identity is an intriguing question, which I have never seen fully explained. Odessa? Die Spinne? The Croatian Brothers under protection of Bishop Alois Hudal? OSS? It would seem a mixture of "all of the above."]

Meanwhile, inter-cut with this story, General Konrad Meinike (Konstantine Shayne), one of Kindler's right hand men, would be released by Allied Intelligence from a prison camp, much as Adolph Eichmann or Klaus Barbie were, and he would begin to follow the path of Kindler, his old boss and confederate. We were to watch his pilgrim's progress, carefully rehearsing his excuse in English: "I am traveling for my health, I am traveling for my health." [Rather like the mantras, it struck me years later, of Sirhan Sirhan, murderer of Robert Kennedy.] Following Meinke, in an attempt to arrest the elusive Kindler, is War Crimes Commission Agent Wilson (originally to be played by Agnes Moorehead, but, in the event, by the sardonic Edward G. Robinson), who eventually tracks General Meinike to Harper, Conn, Kindler's lair.

So we would have had Welles' favorite type of scenario (CITIZEN KANE, MR. ARKADIN, TOUCH OF EVIL, etc.): A pursuer pursues a pursuer(s) who is pursuing a pursued.

All that remains of the above material, in the 95 minute picture we have, are bits and pieces of what I've described.

The nerve center of Harper, which resembles *Grover's Corners in Welles friend Thornton Wilder's more famous Our Town, is the General Store, presided over by a checker whiz, Mr. Potter (analogous to Wilder's "Stage Manager," and played by Old Vaudevillian Billy House). Agent Wilson has lost Meinike's trail, but a talk with the observant Potter sends him to Harper School, where he is knocked out by Meinike, almost brained, in fact, beside the swimming pool of the school gym. Meinike had come to the school after stopping at the Rankin house to inquire of Mary the whereabouts of her husband.

Meinike meets Kindler/Rankin like a long lost friend (which they are) in the woods on the edge of Harper (where the Puritans would have feared the Devil lurked). During the film's most cinematic, Wellsian sequence, self-contained Kindler expresses pleasure at first, anticipating Meinike's cooperation one day, in helping him (and presumably, forces unknown by ordinary Americans) to gain control of the United States of America:

"Who would think," Kindler boasts, "to look for the notorious Franz Kindler in the sacred precincts of Harper School, surrounded by the sons of America's First Families?"

"Franz!" the apprehensive Meinike exclaims. "There will be another war?"

To which Kindler replies simply: "Of course."

What the major war criminal, Kindler, has not counted upon is that Meinike, during his imprisonment, and in his circuitous pilgrimage afterward, like many who have worshipped false gods -- e.g., Nixon Fingerman Chuck Colson during his imprisonment following Watergate -- has had a religious conversion. He is questing after Kindler to persuade his fellow Nazi to pray with him, to confess his sins, to beg forgiveness. Kindler, however, beholding the potential unmasking of his disguise, the destruction of his American acceptance, strangles his old colleague, and frantically buries him among the leaves of the forest, all the while -- now wild-eyed -- aware that his students, innocently engrossed in another allegorical pastime, *"the paper chase," are bearing down upon him. In a trademark four minute take, Welles carries out this almost religious confrontation under "expressionistic light."

It is a superb piece of film making.

Agent Wilson, plain "Mister Wilson" as he becomes known -- in psychodramatic function like CITIZEN KANE's equally indefatigable Reporter Jerry Thompson -- tracks a solution to the Kindler Case; while Rankin (Kindler) and his wife, Mary, attempt to deal with the terrible hypocrisy of their marriage, which effectuates the remainder of THE STRANGER.

Based on a story by a Russian refugee, Victor Trivas (who wrote Director Fydor Otsep's MORDER DIMITRI KARAMAZOV/ BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, 1931); adapted by him and Decla Dunning; but resulting from an actual screen play by John Huston, Welles, and Anthony Veiller (who got the credit), this moody, dark thriller benefited by the Production Design of Perry Ferguson (CITIZEN KANE), the Photography of Russell Metty (TOUCH OF EVIL), and the Music of Bronislav Kaper (Huston, THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, 1951).

Welles later disavowed THE STRANGER, for having been shorn of what he felt was major evidence that his beloved America, upon achieving victory over Fascism in 1945, had begun to collaborate with that very enemy, the most destructive force the Democracies had encountered in the 20th Century. He would know, as would his friend John Huston, who had served in the European Theater (Italy, mostly) during the War, that large numbers of Nazis from Germany and Eastern Europe were being smuggled (inexplicably, at the time) out of Europe, to the safety of South America and even into the United States. The mechanism by which this subterfuge on the American public had been accomplished was the principal interest Welles had in making THE STRANGER. It was that very mechanism which was largely slashed from the finished film.

[In the last months of 1945, Welles was not only directing THE STRANGER but risking his career in several anti-fascist activities, and re-writing much of his friend Charles Lederer's script for *GILDA, which would establish his bride Rita Hayworth as America's Love Goddess. The plot of GILDA involves a hero (Glen Ford)'s exertions to rescue a beautiful entertainer (Hayworth) from the clutch of an Austrian night club owner (George Macready), who is finding homes for escaped Nazis in the environs of Rio. At the same time, Welles' collaborator, John Huston, was beginning to work on a Maxwell Anderson play about Nazis coming into the United States by way of Florida. He and Richard Brooks were eventually able to get the green light for KEY LARGO (1948) by turning the Nazis into what would become known as Organized Crime.]

THE STRANGER is, nevertheless, notable for being the first Post-War Hollywood theatrical picture to show newsreels of the Holocaust, which Mr. Wilson watches to familiarize himself with the many evil accomplishments of Franz Kindler. What THE STRANGER could have only suggested, at best, was the extent to which the Nazis had already infiltrated the U.S. by 1946.

Incongruously, with the forced release of millions of Government documents over just the last week -- 250,000 of which have so far been reviewed -- we can now read written official evidence that huge American companies, such as Union Bank (co-run by Prescott Bush -- Grandfather of our President -- and Herbert Walker, namesake of President George Herbert Walker Bush), Standard Oil of New Jersey (run by William Farish, Grandfather of the present American Ambassador to Great Britain), ITT (founded by Somosthenes Behn, whose German subsidiaries helped produce the Fouke-Wulfe 190 Interceptor), and Chase National Bank (chaired by Winthrop Rockefeller, future Ambassador to Great Britain ), Ford, IBM, Dupont, on and on and on, profited obscenely from business and financial arrangements with Nazi Germany (providing, by some estimates, over 50% of the Nazi war effort, throughout the War); and that they assisted the OSS, the CIA, and other Intelligence agencies in helping establish thousands of fascists, many of them war criminals, in South and North America.

Certain of these men and women were merely clever, had friends in high places. Others had provided services to the West in the new Cold War, following World War II. Still others brought valuable information and skills to America.

For an individual instance, Baron Otto von Bolschwing, who, under (later escaped) Sturmbanfuhrer Alois Brunner, succeeded Adolph Eichmann in charge the SS Middle European Desk on "The Jewish Question," came to the U.S. in 1945. He was part of General Reinhart Gehlen's 3000 Nazi counter-intelligence force, turned over that year by Gehlen to the OSS. [Gehlen became chief of the new West German Intelligence Services.] Bolschwing opened a large communications company in California, Trans-Computer International (TCI). There is much more "lore" on this particular case I won't go into here, but the story, involving Ronald Reagan and the George H.W.Bush "Heritage Groups," continues almost to our time.

For a broader instance, interrogation methods practiced on the subjugated people of Europe by the Gestapo and other Fascist police and Intelligence organizations formed a matrix for the curriculum at The School of the Americas, formerly near Washington, D.C., which in the last 50 years has trained (conservatively) half of the secret police forces in South America, and around the World, all to aid us in "The War Against Communism."

The Nazi and Fascist methods taught (electric shock, heat, cold baths, beating in shower rooms, forced ingestion of large amounts of Castor Oil, throwing people down stairs, attacks by police dogs, beating or crushing bones and ligaments of subjects wrapped in blankets or cloth -- to leave no identifiable marks) were augmented by observations of the Russian NKVD and (later) GPU security forces, at Lubianka Prison in Moscow and in the Gulags. The Evil Bolsheviks had their own psychological "scientific communistic" SOP for "softening up" detainees: Sleep deprivation, for instance, leaving cell lights on 24/7, constantly observing the subject . . . sexual humiliation.

Sound familiar?

The past several weeks, with its pictures of corn-fed young American guys and gals, chicken pluckers and auto mechanics, doing ignorant, rude-looking things to naked Iraqis, the rumors of much worse -- indeed 2, 12, 25 or 35 murders -- and then the beheading of a hapless (and enigmatic) entrepreneur from Pennsylvania in retaliation, left the average forgetful U.S. Citizen asking, "How did these horrors come about?"

I'm afraid, in a real if not official sense, we shall find that the totalitarian methods described above have been applied by us to the "U.S. War on Terror," at Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan, at Guatanomo; and in places, such as Wild Horse Camp and The Biff, which we have not heard of much yet.

How can we spread Democracy and Freedom to the benighted of the Middle East and Central Asia by ugly, putrid, banal methods, such as we have seen, and heard of, in our Media recently?

Orson Welles might say, in fearful sorrow, if he were alive today, that it began with the symbolic figure of Franz Kindler, a man who erased his past for his ambition to regain power and to put like-thinkers in control of American military might; to follow in the footsteps of Alexander, as other conquerors would have done, into the Middle East, into Central Asia, and finally to possess the Heartland of Siberia and China.

To paraphrase what Franz Kindler observed about his fellow Germans: "Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the [American], the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace, he's another Barbarossa, another Hitler."


*Thornton Wilder -- Not only was he an inspiration, a friend and advisor to Welles, but after his Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town, he contributed a screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT, which starred Mercury Regular Joseph Cotton, that like THE STRANGER, suggests an innocent small town America threatened with corruption. In the case of SHADOW OF A DOUBT, the Devil was a sexual predator from the Godless city. Interestingly, coincidentally no doubt, there is a certain resemblance between THE STRANGER and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (Frankenheimer, 1962 -- now being re-made), in which Richard Condon updated Welles' scenario to the Korean War period, on the eve of the Kennedy Assassination -- that great watershed for the American Republic.


**"paper chase" -- Ironically, 25 years after THE STRANGER, Welles' Mercury Theater partner, John Housman, who had a professional and emotional relationship with Welles similar to that of Meinike and Kindler, starred in PAPER CHASE (1974), where he played an authoritarian law professor. It took the elderly Housman from his distinguished behind-the-scenes career as Hollywood producer (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, 1952) and Academic Administrator (Head of the Julliard School Drama Division), and at 72, made him a Star; it was Welles' career turned on its ear!


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