Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah). This post is dedicated to all the families tragically affected by this horrific period in history, and in hopes that we shall never forget to recognize the faces of evil, while remembering to seek out the goodness in humanity…
The great villains of the big screen have always been a draw for audiences. We love to hate the evil doers, the bad boys and naughty ladies. A magnificent protagonist is nothing without a strong antagonist and vice-versa. These roles are clearly defined for us in Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER (1946).
In THE STRANGER (1946), the evil antagonist doesn’t get much more evil than a nazi. And not just any nazi; but Franz Kindler (portrayed by Orson Welles), the mastermind nazi responsible for the horrific deaths of millions in the Holocaust. First we are introduced to Mr. Wilson (portrayed by Edward G. Robinson) of the War Crimes Commission who is searching for this evil fugitive from justice. Kindler has effectively kept his identity a complete mystery. No photos, no identifying marks and no trace of his whereabouts exist. Our only clue that sets Kindler apart is his obsessive passion for clocks. And the only connection to Kindler is his former partner in crime and fellow nazi Konrad Meinike (portrayed by Konstantine Shayne). So Wilson releases Meinike in hopes he’ll lead him to Kindler, then follows him to Harper, Connecticut.
In this quaint little town, Wilson arrives pretending to be an antique dealer, tight on Meinike’s trail. But soon Meinike gives him the slip in the school gymnasium and knocks him out cold. Then Meinike makes an uncomfortable visit to Kindler’s home. Kindler is now operating under the guise as Charles Rankin, professor at the local prep school. He also is about to be married to a beautiful and deeply compassionate woman, Mary Longstreet. She’s at his house hanging curtains as Meinike mysteriously shows up looking for “Rankin.” Mary is puzzled why this foreign-accented stranger leaves without giving his name or why he’s so anxious to see her soon-to-be-husband.
When Meinike catches up with Kindler aka Rankin their conversation is brief. He admits that he was followed but believes he killed his pursuer. Kindler knows he can’t afford to have Meinike near him, as the only threat in revealing his true identity and ruining his cover. So, he kills Meinike right in broad daylight, out in the woods but close by to students running by. He swiftly covers up his body with dirt, rocks and leaves. Meanwhile, Wilson awakens (not quite as dead as Meinike had thought) and is treated by the local doctor. He manages to charm his way into a dinner at the Longstreet home to find clues on the whereabouts of Meinike and Kindler because he heard this Professor Rankin has an affinity for clocks, such as the town’s clock tower that has become his hobby to restore. The dinner attendees include Mary’s father, Mary’s brother Noah, Wilson, the doctor, and Mr. and Mrs. Rankin, just back from their honeymoon. The conversation becomes intriguing when the topic of ‘what to do with the post-Holocaust Germans’ and Professor Rankin responds that “Marx was not a German, but a Jew.” Wilson knows only a nazi would make this statement so he decides to stay longer.
Wilson decides to confide in Noah as to his real identity and purpose for his stay, in hopes to somehow get the truth to Mary. He knows this won’t be easy. When Rankin takes Red, Mary’s beloved Irish Setter for a walk, the dog starts digging at Meinike’s secret grave site. That night Rankin locks Red in the cellar to keep him from revealing the dead body. When Red starts howling, Charles Rankin tells Mary he plans to keep her dog locked up or on a chain around the clock. This disturbs Mary greatly- she doesn’t believe in imprisoning her pet. He’s starting to show a whole new side of himself to his new bride. Pace picks up quickly as Red is found dead and Wilson and Noah discover he’s been murdered from poisoning. Based on further evidence on Red, Wilson concludes the proximity of Meinike’s burial site. With both Red and Meinike dead bodies discovered, Wilson knows it’s only a matter of time before Kindler makes another bold move. This time it’s likely to kill his new wife, who surely must be wondering how this murdered man is connected to her husband and why her husband has pressured her to pretend she never met Meinike. Earlier Rankin concocts a lie for Mary as to why they must keep his connection to Meinike a secret but he also admits he is the one who killed him… for a ‘good reason.’ Shockingly, Mary accepts his lies and continues to support him.
Wilson knows he must act immediately and boldly. He sees Mary’s blind loyalty to her husband but has faith that her strong morality will lead her to eventually accept the truth. It must be shown to her in shocking realness to break through. Wilson and Mr. Longstreet arrange a private meeting with Mary. She’s curious and worried. In this meeting, Wilson comes straight with Mary for the first time. After explaining his real occupation and purpose for his stay in Harper, he gets to the core of the matter with reels of Kindler’s horrors in Europe. [Interestingly, this was the very first time the real footage from the Holocaust was actually shown in a feature film.] When he explains this horrific connection to her directly, she is overwhelmed and runs out in deep denial and disbelief.
For the benefit of any unfamiliar with this film, I’ll leave the remainder of the film and its dramatic conclusion for you to see for yourself. Orson does a wonderful job both in front of and behind the camera as its director and leading villain. But he is not the big player in this film. And maybe that’s why Welles said this was one of his least favorite films. Edward G. Robinson takes the lead as the wise and insightful detective, a true champion for truth and justice. In his small stature and approachable casualness, he gains acceptance quickly by those around him. He’s genuine. It’s because of the strong case this character builds, the evilness in Welles’ character is so strong via contrast. We don’t see as much screen time with Welles’ character Kindler/Rankin and yet we don’t even have to. Through Robinson’s performance we despise Kindler while barely seeing him on screen. Then Welles adds fear in our hearts via his solid performance.
To add to our perception of Kindler’s evil ways, Loretta Young contributes a strong contrast through her splendid portrayal of the sweet and trusting Mary Longstreet/Mrs. Charles Rankin. Her capacity for an infinite belief in goodness in others is both her downfall but also her saving grace. She is so pure in her love for her new husband that it distorts her ability to see his villainous ways. Despite being in love, it is also due to her faith in humanity that it’s impossible for a person like Mary to stay supportive of a truly evil monster like Kindler, once evidence reveals the truth. Loretta Young does a superb job of embodying Mary in an authentic manner. She is not so much vulnerable and naive as Kindler had hoped when targeting her to be his cover, rather her moral compass is unyielding. In a way, by being his polar opposite, her pure goodness of heart is his ultimate nemesis…
The following post is my very tardy contribution to THE GREAT VILLAIN Blogathon, hosted by Karen of SHADOWS AND SATIN, Ruth of SILVER SCREENINGS and Kristen of SPEAKEASY. For all the magnificent villain entries that delivered in a more timely manner, check out the full list of wonderful blog posts.