Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator from the War Crimes Commission, releases a former ally of the fugitive Nazi Franz Kindler's (Orson Welles) named Konrad Meinike (Konstatin Shayne) in the hope he'll lead Wilson to Kindler. Wilson follows Meinike to the town of Harper, Connecticut. Kindler has assumed the identity of Charles Rankin, a prep school teacher. Kindler is to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale). Kindler hopes his marriage to Mary will offer his further protection against any attempts to reveal his identity.
The Stranger reminds me of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, released three years prior to this film, in which Joseph Cotton plays a serial killer who comes to stay with his family in California. The film was about the juxtaposition of an idyllic town and the monster hiding amongst its people; the fear of evil invading America. The Stranger deals with similar themes but with more historical significance. A Nazi war criminal would be an invader and corrupter of America. But Harper in the perfect place for Kindler to hide, he tells Meinike. Who would look for a Nazi war criminal in a small Connecticut town? Kindler also creates an ideal identity: a kindly teacher who will marry in to a respected family. But Kindler only sees his life as Rankin as temporary; an interlude until there is another war and the Nazis rise again. Kindler is hiding from his past- as film noir characters often do- but he's also ready to embrace his former identity when the time comes. Kinder then kills Meinike to protect his identity.
What The Stanger is most notable for is its use of footage of the Nazi concentration camps, a very daring scene for what was a mainstream Hollywood film. Wilson shows Mary this footage as he reveals the truth about her husband. Wilson is not only telling Mary her husband is a Nazi but is showing her the reality of who the Nazis were, illustrating something Americans had at the time only heard about. The scene isn't just about Mary's reaction but the audience's as well. Mary refuses to believe Wilson. Wilson tells Mary's father that her denial is about not wanting to believe she could ever love a monster. Mary eventually confronts her husband about his true identity. He attempts to kill her but is prevented by Wilson and Noah.
Kindler's fascination with clocks leads him to repair the timepiece in the town's clock tower, which is where the film's climax occurs. The clock tower has a claustrophobic atmosphere. This is highlighted by Wilson telling Kindler the world closed in on him, then the town, now this clock tower.
While Welles considered The Stranger to be his least favourite among his own films, it was in fact the only film of his to be a box office success upon release. It does feel more audience friendly film than some of Welles' other films, it's style- while Wellesian- is in tone with other noirs of the time. But despite being a conventional noir thriller in some ways, The Stranger is still an important and daring work in the Welles' oeuvre. It wasn't afraid to confront the subject of the Holocaust and the aftermath of the war. It blends the stylized world of film noir while injecting it with footage of the locations of actual atrocities. The Stranger is a splendidly made film which has a social significance that's still relevant today.