20 April 2010

Hey Stranger, New in Town? - Or - How One Actor Can Elevate a Good Film to Great

The Stranger (1946) is a taut, suspenseful, well-executed film directed by and co-starring Orson Welles. Welles plays Hans Kindler a Nazi war criminal who has escaped justice and lives as respected school teacher in a bucolic New England town (one is left to assume that schools didn't check references in post war America). Kindler, now known as Charles Rankin, has made such a remarkable transformation that, as our story begins, he is about to wed Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young) whose father is a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Kindler/Rankin may have erased all traces of his past, but he still yearns for the day when Nazism is resurrected. Like Harry Lime, Welles' character in The Third Man (1949),  he is no garden variety bad guy, he is evil incarnate. The erudite, sophisticated kind of bad man who seems particularly dangerous.

Enter Edward G. Robinson in the role of  an investigator from the War Crimes Commission. We not only have quarry and prey but an especially intriguing story line to boot. We can also be certain, especially given the year this picture was released, that Kindler will be exposed. 1946 was not a time when Nazis got away with anything in films.

Absent the mystery of whether the jig will be up for our villain, we are still left with much to ponder, such as the means of his exposure, whether he will suffer capture or death and whether there will be innocents who, in modern parlance, are collateral damage, most particularly his unsuspecting bride. Welles delivers a strong if not entirely nuanced performance, while Young is striking for her combination of vulnerability, naivete and courageous intelligence. Lighting, pacing, camera angles and editing are all quite good as one might expect from Welles. The Stranger is then a fine if unspectacular film. Except for Robinson.

Though best remembered for excellent portrayals of  gangsters, Robinson also wore the proverbial white hat in numerous films and usually to good effect.  The Stranger is one such film.

As in other movies in which he's a good guy, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Robinson is easy enough to overlook during your first viewing. But the more you watch him, the more engaging he becomes.

As The Stranger's Mr. Wilson, Robinson is his foe's intellectual equal but without a hint of pretense. While Wilson can sit comfortably at a dinner party with the local elite, he can also play checkers downtown with the rascally local clerk. But his mind is always working and for this we admire Wilson. Robinson could convey a man thinking better than any actor I can name. There was a studied casualness to him; yet we could bloody well tell that his noggin was hard at work.

He also brought passion to such roles, particularly here where he is determined to round up the worst of the Nazi scum. Knowing what evil the Third Reich wrought, we endorse his desires.

Robinson was well into his 50's when The Stranger was made and his looks were never going to make you forget Cary Grant. In pursuit of Kindler, we note that he's physically a capable sort though far from an action hero. Yet we like him. There is a sad basset hound quality to that mug but its offset by his being a terribly likable bloke with a big heart.

This is the type of film that one can't imagine Hollywood successfully making today (if indeed they'd even try). There would be too much of everything thrown in and if you could find an actor to even approach Robinson's subtly they'd run him off the set.

The Stranger is a product of 1940's Hollywood and a forerunner to the kind of earnest, serious stories that were made throughout the 50's on both the big screen and television. The Stranger's success, then and now, is a tribute to Welles the director and that wonderful star, Ms. Young. But I think it is made special by Robinson who brings a moral gravitas to a key role. He does it without indulging in long winded speeches or lectures. He instead brings himself as an exemplar of a simple right-minded man of intelligence for whom doing the right thing is not a credo, but a job and a commitment.

(Coming soon, a look at my ten favorite Robinson films.)

No comments: