The Earth Is Made Of Glass: Orson Welles’s ‘The Stranger’

The standard wisdom about Orson Welles’s 1946 thriller The Stranger—broadly, that it’s Welles’s weakest film, the runt in his otherwise superlative litter—needs challenging, even if Welles himself seemed mostly disinclined to do so. Only in 1982, three years before his death, did he appear to suggest, to BBC interviewers, that it wasn’t so terrible after all. (It had been cut, by about 20 minutes, by producer Sam Spiegel, who had also imposed Edward G. Robinson on the proceedings in the role of an implacable war crimes investigator—Welles had wanted Agnes Moorehead!) By 1982, Welles seemed altogether less pleased with Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report), perhaps because it was a more personal project. To the present writer, Arkadin is clearly the better film, but The Stranger is nonetheless, at the very least, a fascinating curio, and if it’s a minor film (if…), then it’s the sort of minor film that only a really major talent could make, and an excellent example of what the Cahiers du Cinéma critics meant about the failures of the great being better films than the best work of lesser talents.

The credited editor of The Stranger is Ernest Nims, a veteran whose main function in Hollywood seems to have been recutting films to maximise their perceived box-office highlights. It was he who later recut Touch of Evil against Welles’s desires and took a butcher’s cleaver to Franklin Schaffner’s The War Lord, greatly to the well-publicised anguish of both films’ star, Charlton Heston. That someone has been nibbling away at Welles’s footage is immediately clear as The Stranger‘s credits conclude. The escape from custody of war criminal Konrad Meineke (a fine, but now rather brief, performance by Konstantin Shayne) is managed with ridiculous-seeming ease and speed, and he manages to get from Europe to New England (via South America) in no time. Once arrived in a rural college town, Meineke reveals his presence to Franz Kindler, formerly the master brain of the Thousand Year Reich but now, thanks to his life-long avoidance of personal publicity and his mastery of an American accent, a respected local lecturer under the pseudonym of Charles Rankin. Meineke also reveals that he’s got religion in jail, and so has to be murdered by his onetime bludbruder.

Meineke’s escape from Czechoslovakia, his lightning trip across the world to Latin America and his final arrival in Harper, Connecticut, take up only the first five of the film’s 95 minutes. His flight has been permitted to occur by a mysterious American, Mr. Wilson, who follows him all the way. Pipe-smoking and professorial, Wilson is every inch a quiet, college-town type, a lot less conspicuous than this nervous, muttering German. Obsessively clutching his suitcase (which is deposited only reluctantly in the Harper general store), Meineke is only too willing, despite his newfound devotion to “the all-highest” (God, that is, not Hitler), to do violence to halt the pursuit of his mild-mannered nemesis from the Allied War Crimes Commission. It is made swingeingly clear that his new enthusiasm is quite as mindless, and quite as feral, as his old one, which he has obviously not abandoned—even if this second fanaticism makes him too evidently wacko for Kindler to allow him to live.

However, Wilson—who dodges Meineke’s murder attempt to receive nothing worse than a bump on the noggin—is, quietly, every bit as fanatical as the Nazi. His pose as an antiques dealer is used to deceive decent people as well as fleeing S.S. types, and, if that’s a fairly standard thriller convention, we may still be concerned by the obsessiveness with which he ensures he will have his way, whatever the cost in emotional commitment, or even personal safety, to his helpers. In the film’s first scene, we have seen a quite different fellow from the amiable, unobtrusive, checkers-playing visitor who steps down from the Harper bus; bullying his fellow investigators into letting Meineke escape (a dubious, risky and extreme stratagem for locating Kindler, for whom no very good description exists), Wilson is consistent (and constant) in his ruthless manipulation of others to achieve his unarguably admirable goal.

This is where The Stranger gets so interesting. The moral divisions between good-guy America and nasty Nazi Germany are not as clear-cut as they seem, or as we would like them to be. Why has Franz Kindler chosen to hole up in the very epicentre of his enemies’ stronghold, in that Smalltown USA sentimentally assumed by patriots to be the quintessence of the American way? Because he can do a lot of damage there—and because he might be listened to. An educator, obviously popular with his students, he can reach young minds and has made a big impression in a very short time—the film came out in the summer of 1946, though it is set in winter, so Kindler has had barely more than a year, perhaps less than one, to become a local “name,” and to sweep off her feet the daughter of the town’s most respected celebrity, a Supreme Court judge eminent for his liberalism. Wilson’s arrival coincides with Kindler’s marriage to the unsuspecting (indeed, dangerously naïve) Mary Longstreet.

It may have amused Orson Welles to cast himself as a “boy genius” of unbridled wickedness, especially as the character’s pathological dislike of personal publicity is so at odds with the fame which began to accrue around young Orson when he was still in his teens; it was certainly shrewd to cast that nice girl, Loretta Young, as Mary, a sort of morally sleeping beauty who must be violently awakened to the truth about the man she not only loves but has married and slept with, a man quite able, even willing, to unravel everything that has made her life pleasing thus far. Complacent, isolationist America is still, even after war, a force. And, even in hiding, Rankin/Kindler is still highly opinionated—he gives himself away to Wilson by his throwaway remark that “Karl Marx was not a German, he was a Jew”, but no-one else at the dinnertable picks up on this, and even Wilson himself takes a while to register it.

Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson and Philip Merivale as Judge Longstreet

For all Welles’s objections, the casting of Edward G. Robinson, geboren Emmanuel Goldenberg, as Wilson gives the picture considerable edge. Was Welles thinking of Hitler’s well-known dictum that fascism could be only defeated if its enemies themselves became fascistic? In the same dinnertable scene, Kindler utters a lengthy diatribe against the Germans to throw Wilson off the scent—even suggesting that the master race can be kept under control best by simple annihilation. This is, of course, a final solution scenario as vile as Hitler’s (which, we’re told, Kindler played a key role in concocting), but the incognito übermensch can disguise its blatant similarity to Nazi ideas simply by suggesting different victims—with the chilling result that his proposals are regarded as no worse than a bit extreme. Mary tries to laugh it off—”I can’t imagine you’re seriously suggesting a Carthaginian peace!”—but Kindler sweetly returns, “You must admit we’ve had very little trouble from Carthage in the last two thousand years….”

The other giveaway is that Kindler is known to have a passion for clocks (that old Nazi thing about “perfect order”?) and “Rankin” is at work restoring the huge old timepiece in the tower that seems to be Harper’s biggest, oldest and most imposing building. Whenever the hour strikes, out onto a balcony in front of the clock-face trundle two statues, a sword-wielding angel and a diabolic figure it seems to chase away. No prizes for guessing the symbolism here—but it is devil Kindler who, by fiddling not only with the clock but with the ladder which leads into the clock-tower, so very nearly sees off both angelic Mary and the vengeful Mr. Wilson. Justice prevails, however, and “perfect order” is restored to Harper, Conn., even if its antique chronometer is again stopped. Kindler himself is fatally impaled upon the blade of that avenging angel. There is little need to stress the resemblance of the weapon to “the fiery sword of Siegfried,” which we have heard him mention earlier.

The Stranger is the only one of Orson Welles’s films upon which the director takes no screenplay credit. The scenario is ascribed to Anthony Veiller, who was having a very good year in 1946 with both this and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers to his name. John Huston, Veiller’s co-writer and director on later movies such as Moulin Rouge and The List of Adrian Messenger (which also concerns a villain with no face seeking acceptance in the most exaltedly respectable social circles), contributed anonymously to The Stranger‘s script (as well as that of The Killers), whilst the lady billed as its dialogue director is Huston’s later personal assistant and frequent script collaborator, Gladys Hill. Veiller and Huston had spent the war years making documentaries at the front line. Welles had warned of the dangers of fascism on radio, in newspaper columns and in his theatre work even before the war had begun in Europe. All three men—like Jewish refugee Spiegel—were well aware of the residue of fascination amongst American conservatives with the ideology of dictatorship, which is one reason why The Stranger is rather more than a good chase thriller with a clever wow finish.

Perhaps not quite enough more, though. The problems of the narrative do get very bothersome—as Wilson’s net closes in on Kindler, this supposedly ultra-cool and utterly self-assured intellectual superman becomes, frankly, so demented that it’s impossible to believe that no-one else would spot him. One is placed in the odd and embarrassing position of regarding Orson Welles’s own performance as one of the less satisfactory components in an Orson Welles film. Little details do convey, very subtly, that Rankin is not quite universally accepted by the local citizenry—at the wedding reception, we can just hear one old Harper biddy murmuring, “Well, my dear, I won’t pretend I’m not disappointed…” to the local doctor, and Noah Longstreet (Richard Long), Mary’s kid brother, pauses just a fraction of a second too long before assuring Wilson that he likes his new brother-in-law, although he can’t then put his finger on why exactly he doesn’t like him. He makes a joke about having to call him “Charles” at home but “Mr. Rankin” as his pupil at the Harper School. (That doctor, by the way, seems to be an old beau of Mary’s, but Welles scorns to use the old Hollywood cliché suggesting that he may resume courtship and marry her soon after film’s end and thus make everything “all right” again.)

Once Wilson arrives in this Eden (and the Biblical references are plain—Noah likes messing about in boats, whilst his father, the judge, is called Adam), the tree of knowledge must yield its fruit, even to those who would rather not eat it. Does that make Wilson, rather than Kindler, the “snake” who poisons Paradise, or was the snake—or at least the worm in the apple—there already? And to which of the three Harper “strangers”—Kindler, Wilson or Meineke—does the film’s title refer? Again, the hint is that Wilson and his quarry are disturbingly similar. And is Kindler/Rankin disliked by some older Harperites because they sense something fishy about him (good old American know-how), or just because he’s a newcomer, or an intellectual, or an interloper in the town’s life who has come between Mary and her boring, but safe, medical admirer (“one of us”)?

Even the Longstreets do not escape the moral ambiguities in Welles’s small-town portrait. If Mary shows a closed mind about recognising her husband’s Nazi affiliations, she does get all upset when he talks about the need to discipline her beloved dog, who has a bad tendency to want to dig up Meineke’s body, and it’s his eventual killing of this canine which turns her against him—perhaps more this than the terrifying, ghastly documentary film of concentration camps which Wilson forces her to watch. Alas, in the later stages of the film, Mary’s conduct ceases to appear interestingly ambivalent and instead merely becomes almost as loopy as her spouse’s (and to no very good purpose)—and even the Longstreet family’s sharp-tongued domestic has to indulge in wildly uncharacteristic behaviour (not to mention over-acting) to get the plot and the three stars into that clock-tower for the Wellesian tour de force finale.

Orson Welles may have claimed that he did the picture “to prove I could say ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’, just like all the other fellows,” but his other remark that “there is nothing of me in the picture” is clearly a nonsense. The Harper School bears a strong resemblance, much noted by his biographers, to Roger Hill’s Todd School in Woodstock, where the teenage Welles was so happy (a sign on the gym wall—this film, like Touch of Evil, is full of handwritten signs—reveals the football coach as having the same names as his Todd counterpart), and the details of a small, cold New England town are created with a relish which, for all the unstressed astringency, may be love. As a portrait of a community, The Stranger comes close to matching Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (a film much admired by Welles), and we may also be reminded, as James Agee was by the Hitchcock, of the movies of that old Welles family friend (and potential leading man of the unmade Mercury production of The Pickwick Papers), W.C. Fields.

Certainly, Mr. Potter, know-all and snoop in charge of the general store, is, as played by the film-stealing Billy House, an unmissable Fields surrogate; nonetheless, he’s viewed unsentimentally. Mr. Potter, never missing a detail of what goes on, but not understanding any of it, is a charming “character,” but the charm is undermined and subtly criticised throughout the film. Making sure he charges for absolutely everything, and never moving from his window seat to help customers if he can possibly avoid it (“Any limit on the cream?” queries a quietly sarcastic Wilson when required to help himself to coffee), he is never quite actually kind, for all his cheery avuncularity. There’s a cold gleam in his eye, he’s ruthless to his hapless assistant Mr. Peabody, and his victories at the checkers-board, which are usually comically trivial versions of that “Carthaginian peace” Mary spoke about, are sometimes gained by cheating. This small town, which seems to have no non-WASP inhabitants whatsoever, is both delightful, and, like the bucolic “heavens” found in It’s a Gift and The Bank Dick, just a tiny bit hellish.

Orson Welles as Franz Kindler

Even as Kindler sabotages the ladder in the clock-tower to get rid of Mary and Wilson, both of whom make perilous ascents, it begins to snow in Harper. At a long-arranged tea party given by Mary, someone mentions a remark of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, which Kindler can’t remember, but which Wilson takes great delight in reciting: “Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word. You cannot wipe out the foot-track. You cannot draw up the ladder so as to leave no inlet or clue.” The Harperites are deaf to the implications of this quotation, but Kindler knows he is caught.

For now Meineke’s body has been found, and, at Mary’s party, the locals take visible delight in the thought that more corpses may soon be unearthed. Oh, they’re horrified, too—but what relish they take in scandal and the loss of life! (Someone at the reception asks about that French serial killer, Landru—a reference to a film idea of Orson Welles’s which Charlie Chaplin made instead; indeed, Monsieur Verdoux was still being made at the time of The Stranger‘s release). Kindler, true enough, cannot wipe out the knowledge of what has been done, cannot hide his sweating dread of retribution. Yet the townsfolk, even when dragooned by Noah, at Wilson’s request, to race to the clock-tower and rescue Mary, still don’t seem to have any idea who “Rankin” really is or what has really happened.

The angel avenges and the one-time Teuton wunderkind, his secret known only to the family he has tried to become a part of, falls to earth. After the fall (as it were), Wilson rounds the film off in a surprisingly jocular manner, almost sounding like its director on one of his radio shows: “Goodnight, Mary!” he calls—cheerfully, yet—to the town’s new widow, “Pleasant dreams!” Wilson has, moments before this, stoutly defended “the little people you despise” to Kindler, but does he really share this contempt? The Harperites are astonished by the spectacular events, but they don’t seem too aghast. People don’t even offer Mary their condolences. We may—darkly, fearfully, despite ourselves—begin to wonder about the whole set-up, finding the prickliest, most horrid notions starting furtively to suggest themselves somewhere under the surface of our minds. Why does her father, whom we have presumed to be a widower (although he never mentions a wife), call Mary “sister,” whilst she, unlike Noah, calls him by his first name? Subterranean ideas about in-breeding, xenophobia and invisible corruption (and maybe other things) seem just too frightful, too vile, too grossly unfair—and yet…. Perhaps, if the earth really is made of glass, we regard it at our peril, for we may see all those things we prefer never to contemplate, things which the eyes of a stranger, like those of “the all-highest,” may prove able to assess with a clarity which is objective to the point of cruelty. You cannot, indeed, wipe out the foot-track. Anywhere.

© 2011 Peter Richards


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