Orson Welles and the Search for Justice in America

These days in America there’s not a lot of regard for justice as a concept. Instead, we have an unwanted “gift” of social justice—a bland ideology that doesn’t really care for the truth or even for the actual marginalized and forgotten people it claims to champion. Without slipping into some strange nostalgia, it would seem to me that in the past, Americans were far more clear about what actual justice was and is. This was particularly true during World War II.

Even though many Americans were inclined toward isolationism at the beginning of the war, when it came to understanding the actual events of World War II (especially once America was fully engaged in the effort), people knew who the enemy was and what made them bad. After the war, many Nazi war criminals fled Germany, often escaping justice in South America. At the same time, there were those whose job it was to hunt and apprehend these war criminals. 

Such are the events, roughly speaking, of Orson Welles’ 1946 film, “The Stranger.” 

Welles plays a Nazi criminal on the run, Franz Kindler, who has made a new life in a quaint town of Harper, Connecticut. He has changed his name to Charles Rankin, and is a respected teacher and member of the community. As the film opens, he is about to get married to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), daughter of a well-regarded liberal Supreme Court Justice. Rankin has managed to fool everyone in town about his real identity, which is hardly surprising since, as the film points out, he managed to commit most of his unspeakable crimes during the war incognito. The only characteristic that is known to others about his personal peccadillos is his obsession with clocks. This obsession proves to be one important cause of his downfall as the plot “unwinds.”

Rankin is secure in his false existence, and there are indications that despite his otherwise monstrous nature, he may genuinely love Mary. But all of that is changed when an unwelcome guest comes to Harper. 

Konrad Meinike, a Nazi war criminal who once worked with Rankin, goes through a lot of trouble to seek him out. He has become a religious and faithful man, repentant and seeking to persuade Rankin to follow his example. He pleads with Rankin to admit what he has done and to pay for his sins. Rankin doesn’t care for Meinike’s words of spiritual healing and, in order to cover the truth, he kills him.

What Rankin doesn’t know at the time he commits the murder is that a detective working for the United Nations War Crimes Commission, one Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), has followed Meinike to town and is there to capture him. So an otherwise low-risk crime takes on new dimensions of danger for Rankin. 

Nightmarish Noir

Wilson inserts himself into the Longstreet family, hiding his true identity and pretending to be an antiques dealer. Throughout a pleasant dinner and conversation with the Longstreet family, Wilson is on the lookout for signs that Rankin might be Kindler. Rankin’s affinity for clocks becomes apparent when it is revealed that Rankin has an ambition to fix a long-malfunctioning town clock. What makes the suspicion grow, however, is when Rankin corrects Wilson that Karl Marx’s theory could never save the German people because Marx “was not German, but a Jew.” In a telephone call to commission officials, Wilson remarks that only a Nazi would make such a distinction and decides to stick around the town a little while longer.

Despite the fact that this film deals with overtly political content (especially since it was released just a year after the end of the war), the approach that Welles took in his direction is not in any way ideological or even humanitarian. Aesthetically, it follows the form of a film noir: all of the actors (and this is especially true for the main protagonists, Welles, Robinson, and Young) contribute to the sensibility that is found in other films of the same genre.

Typical of Welles’ direction, he adds a nightmarish quality to the scenes, especially in the presentation of shadows. It is in the shadow of evil that looms over the town of Harper; it is in the shadow of Rankin that is overtaking Mary’s entire being; it is in the shadow of Wilson, an unrelenting justice seeker bringing with him Rankin’s destiny; and finally, it is in the shadow of the Holocaust.

The horrors of the war, especially concentration camps, were not then fully known by the general public, and Welles was fully invested in showing the truth. Commenting on the Holocaust footage that was captured during the liberation of the death camps, Welles wrote for the New York Post, on May 7, 1945:

No, you must not miss the newsreels. They make a point this week no man can miss: The war has strewn the world with corpses, none of them very nice to look at. The thought of death is never pretty but the newsreels testify to the fact of quite another sort of death, quite another level of decay. This is a putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage. For some years now we have been calling it fascism. The stench is unendurable.

Welles was incredibly affected by the images and decided to include them in “The Stranger.” In one scene, Wilson attempts to convince Mary of what’s at stake in determining Rankin’s true identity by showing her the horrific images of the death camps. Robinson’s acting moves from hard justice-seeking at any cost to quick bursts of compassion for Mary’s state of mind. This movement is so palpable that we have no choice but to look.

In many ways, Mary represents an embodiment of the people who refused to see the horrors and perhaps continued to do so, even after they were presented with clear evidence. Like Welles, Robinson was also deeply committed to bringing the truth of the Holocaust to the American people, and he did this even earlier in an openly anti-Nazi film, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939), in which he plays Ed Renard, an FBI agent on the hunt for a Nazi agent.

Welles’ attractive looks only add further confusion about his culpability. Naturally, it is clear that he is indeed Franz Kindler, but throughout his manipulative pleading with Mary that he is not Franz Kindler, one sees why she might need to believe him. Welles’ acting ability to portray Rankin as a kind lover and a war criminal in one is an unrepeatable cinematic event. 

The continuous gaslighting of Mary eventually devolves as Rankin begins to lose his power over her and is more and more overcome by his own “putrefaction of the soul.” Loretta Young brings tenderness and vulnerability to Mary without making her a stereotypically weak female lead. Welles’ cinematic vision, in which he moves the camera from deep focus to near invisibility of the character, adds a certain level of the tension we might find between our interior lives and exterior presentations. 

A Strong Sense of American Justice

What then is justice or truth? Who is committed to seeking the truth in order to reach justice for the dead? “The Stranger” has a clear political message for a specific time, yet it also goes beyond the particularities of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. It speaks to our own human choices. It speaks of what we wish to see and what we desire to remain hidden. To act against evil is never easy.

Who is responsible? Who is silent? 

There is a saying in the Babylonian Talmud that goes like this: “If I don’t answer for myself, who will answer for me? If I answer only for myself—am I still myself?” This indeed cuts through our place in this world, in which both good and evil exist. “The Stranger” is a philosophical film noir with a strong sense of American justice. The brilliant and assertive cinematic vision and interplay among Welles, Robinson, and Young urge us to wake up and reconsider the place of justice and truth in our relations with one another.

About Emina Melonic

Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, Emina Melonic immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo: RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images

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