After the spectacular flame-out of his RKO contract, Orson Welles had acquired a reputation — somewhat unfairly, it must be said — as a director whose films ran wildly over budget before tanking at the box office. As if that weren’t bad enough, his unfinished project It’s All True raised further suspicions that he’d “gone bad” as a director — that left to his own devices he’d disappear into the jungle like Colonel Kurtz, taking the studio’s money with him and delivering nothing in return.
So it was four years before he got another chance in the director’s chair, and this time he was determined to show Hollywood that he could deliver a profitable film on time and on budget. The movie in question was The Stranger, about an escaped Nazi war criminal named Franz Kindler (Welles) who is hiding in plain sight in a peaceful Connecticut town, posing as history professor Charles Rankin. Nazi hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), who has arrived in town pretending to be an antique dealer, suspects Rankin is the man he seeks, but can’t prove it, and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse ensues. Caught between them is Rankin’s fiancee, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.
Welles had originally wanted Agnes Moorhead to play the part of Wilson (and what a fascinating movie that would have made) but producer Sam Spiegel insisted on Edward G. Robinson instead. Spiegel also made clear that the film couldn’t go over budget — Welles himself would have to pay for any cost overruns out of his own pocket.
The resulting film is the most conventional of Welles’ career, a fast-paced thriller that was indeed delivered on time and on budget, and which was a solid moneymaker at the box office. For all its mainstream appeal, however, Welles’ hand is unmistakable – his distinctive visual style is evident, and there’s an emphasis on dreams and the subconscious that’s far more sophisticated than most films of the time. — Michael Popham
THE STRANGER screens Friday and Saturday, May 15 and 16 at 7:00 and 9:15, and Sunday, May 17 at 5:00 and 7:15. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.