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Friday, January 27, 2006
Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)

(Many spoilers)

I was over at my dad's this evening and we decided to watch this film. Edward G. Robinson plays a detective working for the War Crimes Tribunal in the immediate post-WWII environment. He is hunting for the architect of Hitler's Final Solution, played by Orson Welles (also the director). Welles has escaped to a small university town in Connecticut, where he has not only found employment as a professor, but is engaged to be married to Lana Turner.

Robinson allows Meinike, one of Welles' former minions, to escape and follows him to the small town in Connecticut. Meinike, sensing he is being followed, ambushes Robinson and knocks him out, apparently by swinging a pair of gymnast's rings at his head.

Meinike then approaches Welles, who agrees to meet him in a nearby woods. Once there, one of the oddball moments of the movie takes place. Meinike reveals that he has converted to Christianity, and that he wants Welles to confess his sins and join him in prayer. Welles instead strangles his former assistant, quickly covers up the body, then rushes off to his wedding.

(This was the first obvious plot hole in the movie. Meinike savagely attacks Robinson, and yet he's embraced Jesus?)

Welles sneaks out after the wedding to finish the job of burying Meinike. Lana is concerned when she can't find him, but of course he arrives back with a change of clothes; it is time for them to catch the train for their honeymoon.

Robinson recovers consciousness and wanders into town, where he makes the acquaintance of the drug store operator (terrific character acting by Billy House). He quickly learns that the only newcomer in town is Welles, and that he's getting married that night.

A few days later, Robinson is pretending to be an antiques dealer writing a monograph on Paul Revere's silver. Welles and Turner have returned from their honeymoon and they meet him as he is interviewing her father about his silver collection. In an interesting sequence, Robinson asks the family their opinion about whether the postwar occupation of Germany will be successful. Welles doubts that democracy will work with the Germans (echoes of today, with postwar Iraq). Robinson makes some comment about Karl Marx being a Democrat (!) and Welles says that Marx was not a German but a Jew. But he appears to convince Robinson that he must not be a Nazi, because he suggests that the Germans must be exterminated.

Later that night, Robinson calls into his boss and suggests that Welles must be clean. (Second major plot hole: Wouldn't they first check the guy's background out and sort of discover that he was nowhere before 1945?) Then, it suddenly occurs to Robinson: Only a Nazi would say that Marx was a Jew, not a German.

The rest of the story has an interesting psychological flavor to it. Welles knows that Robinson must be the man who was trailing Meinike. Turner gradually comes to understand that her new husband is a monster, as he admits killing her dog (who was digging at the gravesite). He also acknowledges killing Meinike, (whom Lana briefly met) although he claims that his victim was actually blackmailing him for a crime that he had not committed.

Meanwhile, Robinson enlists the help of Lana Turner's family. He finds that her younger brother (a teenish Richard Long of The Big Valley and Nanny and the Professor), and her father are already distrustful of Welles, and eventually confides in them the truth.

This leads to some of the most unrealistic parts of the movie. At one point, Robinson tells Lana Turner's father that he assumes Welles will try to kill his daughter, but he sure hopes to get there before she dies. And Dad just nods his head.

They do a confrontation with Lana, telling her about Welles' crimes and showing some brief images of concentration camp horrors. She refuses to believe them at this point, but Robinson is confident she will have a breakdown sooner or later. Her brother seems unaffected by this prognosis.

You get the picture? Welles by this point is just moving pieces around the stage without any real concern as to whether their motivations make any sense. Much attention centers around the broken town clock, which Welles has resolved to fix (apparently he always had a mania with clocks during his Nazi era).

At one point, Turner yells at Welles to kill her and tosses him a poker. The next moment the door is being burst in. Welles has taken off, and Lana's still fine, although she faints. The manhunt is on!

The ending sequence is entertaining but wildly, zanily improbable. Apparently the manhunt failed to look in the most obvious place in town, the place where Welles had been spending much of his free time, the clock tower. And of course, Lana Turner realizes this and runs there. Hearing that she's disappeared, Edward G. brilliantly deduces that she must have gone to the clock tower.

Thrill a minute scene at the clock tower, where Welles is done in by the clock that he fixed. And then comes the most bizarre, farcical ending you can imagine. Both Edward G and Lana have survived. Lana makes it down the ladder, but Robinson, who has been injured in the fight with Welles, decides to wait for a sturdier ladder.

As she disappears down the steps, he says, "Pleasant dreams!"

Pleasant dreams? Her husband has just been killed after trying to kill her, and you say pleasant dreams?
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