Shamedown Numero Trés, and our first Orson Welles movie of the list. I’ve been told this film’s not one of Welles’s best, but I’m keeping an open mind. If anyone is wondering what on God’s green earth a Shamedown is, please visit the folks at Cinema Shame.
After Citizen Kane, Orson Welles never quite got the same amount of creative control over the films he made. Welles seemed to accept it–his sign-off phrase for the Campbell’s Mercury Players radio show was sometimes, “Obediently yours,” as if to say, “See? I’m a good boy now.”
Like a lot of actors who ran into conflict with the major studios, Welles went the independent route, teaming up with teeny International Pictures to direct and star in the 1946 film, The Stranger. Co-starring hefty players Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, it’s a tale of a hunted man with a secret life.
Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is an investigator for the Allied War Crimes Commission looking for Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Wilson’s got the idea that if he lets Kindler’s former toadie, Meinike (Constatin Shayne) out of jail, Kindler will be easier to catch and put away for good. Mr. Wilson is so passionate about the idea he breaks his pipe in two.
Wilson’s not the only one looking for Franz–the Nazis want him, too. The mere mention of his name is enough to make them stiffen with terror. The want to know what name he’s operating under, and one of them pulls out a postcard of Harper, a picturesque little Connecticut town.
Meinike boards a passenger ship to the States, and looks as if he’s afraid of his own shadow, He goes around repeating to himself, “I’m traveling for my health.” Hot on his heels is Mr. Wilson, calmly smoking his taped-up pipe.
Harper is a tight-knit place, where everyone knows everyone. The residents are so casual with each other, they think nothing of going behind the counter at the drugstore and pouring themselves coffee or making their own banana splits while the owner, Mr. Potter (Billy House) sits playing checkers. He doesn’t mind at all when Meinike asks if he can leave his suitcase on a shelf in the store.
Meinike tries to lose Mr. Wilson in a boys’ school gymnasium, and knocks him down with a gymnastics ring. Then he makes a beeline for Kindler’s house. Kindler, who goes by Professor Charles Rankin in Harper, teaches at the school and is beloved by his students. It’s his wedding day to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), whose dad, Adam (Philip Merivale) is a Supreme Court Justice. Meinike finds Mary hanging curtains, and he’s so jumpy he doesn’t want to wait or tell Mary his name. He’ll look out for Kindler himself.
Kindler is aghast to see Meinike, and Meinike pleads with Kindler to come clean and turn himself in. He wants Kindler to find salvation in God the way he did. Kindler is more concerned with whether or not Meinike was followed, so the latter tells him about Wilson. Meinike won’t be deterred, though, and starts leading Kindler in the Sinner’s Prayer. Meanwhile, Kindler has corralled Meinike behind a bush and strangles him.
The wedding goes ahead, and a deliriously happy Mary is baffled to find Kindler missing during the reception. He’s busily burying Meinike in the woods, of course, but bluffs out to Mary that he’s been getting ready for their honeymoon. Gee, nice save, Gretsky.
While Kindler and Mary are off billing and cooing, Wilson has been poking around looking for information. He makes friends with Mr. Potter and Adam, as well as Mary’s brother, Noah (Richard Long), getting invited to dinner at the Longstreet mansion after Kindler and Mary come back. The townspeople all think Wilson is an antique dealer specializing in Paul Revere silver and clocks.
It just so happens that Kindler’s hobby is clocks, too. He’s fixing the clock in the Harper church, and it takes all his spare time. In fact, Kindler is obsessed with time, planning out every moment of his day.
At first Wilson thinks Kindler is above suspicion. He’s about to leave town when he realizes that at the dinner table Kindler denied Marx was Jewish. Mary’s dog, Rhett dying mysteriously further piques his interest, and he clues Noah and Adam in on who Kindler really is.
Naturally, Mary has to be told, and Wilson gives her the whole truth: Kindler was a mastermind of the Holocaust. The gas chambers were his brainchild. Mary can’t believe her Charles could be a horrible person. Still, her subconscious tortures her, and it’s only a matter of time before things come crashing down. No matter what, the time Kindler values so much will do him in, and he won’t be able to worm out of it.
International Pictures was an arm of the struggling RKO pictures, and initially, they were set to give Welles a four-picture deal. According to Welles historian Peter Bogdanovich, however, International reneged because they thought The Stranger would flop. It didn’t, but Welles was too big a risk, so there went that.
The Stranger isn’t terrible, just kinda “meh.” It felt like Welles was trying to make a Hitchcock film, and his trademark bite really wasn’t there. It doesn’t really leave any room for guessing, either. What’s confusing is that at the beginning Wilson isn’t clear about who they’re letting out of jail, and then we see meek little Meinike.
What saves the movie are the performances. Welles is his usual thundering self, but kudos have to go the Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young for the way they go toe-to-toe with Welles. What’s funny is that Welles originally wanted Agnes Moorehead for the part of Wilson, because he thought a lady investigator would have been more interesting. The studio, however, wanted Robinson, so Welles went along.
What was an unusual movie for Orson Welles was very timely. At the time of release, Nazi war criminals were being hunted and prosecuted, and audiences must have felt satisfied to see one get his comeuppance. In just over a year, The Stranger made its money back twice over. It may not have been Welles’ best film, but it filled a need.
Another post is on the way tomorrow, and it’s a bit unusual. Thanks for reading all, and I hope to see you again soon…
The Stranger is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.
Bogdanovich, Peter, Orson Welles. This Is Orson Welles. Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.