Men of truth everywhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled…Professor Charles Rankin (portrayed by Orson Welles), The Stranger.
Certain forms of literature and cinema have close ties to one another. Films based on books, books inspired by films, and so on. Sometimes, these relations are simply shared genres and themes. Nowhere is this correlation so strikingly similar — and at the same time so vastly disparate — as the relationship between film noir and the hardboiled detective story.
The Stranger, released in 1946, is an amazing study into this concurrent similarity and dissimilarity. The two forms of storytelling share many common threads: the conflicted souls of their characters, dark and gritty themes, constantly building suspense, and thrilling, action-packed climaxes. But, when one really absorbs a noir film, the differences become readily apparent. Evocative camera angles, meaningful lighting choices, deep shadows, and visual symbolism are all prevalent features of film noir — and all elements that can never truly be translated to the page of a book.
This film immediately feels like a piece of classic pulp fiction, throwing the audience right into the action and not slowing down. There’s no hand-holding here; no exposition, no backstory, and no establishing shots. We open on several members of an allied war crimes commission discussing some unknown problem related to some unknown person. Without even knowing what they are discussing, perhaps ninety seconds into the film, a decision is made that is the inciting incident for the entire story. End scene.
From there, we’re dragged along on a journey, not knowing why we’re there or why we should care, other than following somebody who is on the run. But, the amazing score and dramatic visuals are enough to grab our attention and let us know that we should care, even if we still don’t know why.
Eventually we make our way to a small town, and things start to slow down. We meet some more characters, and we realize one of the men in the first scene is our protagonist. He’s following the man who has been fleeing, but we still don’t know who this person is or why he needs to be found.
To say more would be to spoil the story.
However, read any description of the movie, even the most basic blurb, and you’ll get the premise of the film. I say: don’t do it. I read the description before watching, so I had an idea of what was going on. I’m sure advertisements for the film prior to its theatrical release told the audience what to expect. I feel, though, the intent was for the audience not to know. The mystery is finding out why all this is happening as it unfolds. The thrill of the first act is the chase. The thrill of the second act is the discovery. And, finally, the thrill of the third act is the danger. Read the description of the film’s premise, and you’ll lose the thrill of the second act.
Pros: A great study of film noir concepts. Gripping and exciting at the beginning and the end. A great mix of mystery, romance, and thriller. Interesting symbolism (pay attention to the clock tower.)
Cons: The second act shifts gears and slow down dramatically, which feels abrupt after the breakneck opening act. However, it’s worth it if you stick with it.
Verdict: Five Stars. If you’re a fan of mysteries or psychological thrillers, definitely watch this movie. I rarely recommend going into a film blind, but in this case, I say do yourself a favor.
The Stranger stars Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles. It was directed by Orson Welles, best known for his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), and his narration of the radio drama adaptation in 1938 of War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The film was produced by Sam Spiegel, best known for his work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and On the Waterfront (1954). The Stranger has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96%.
As of the writing of this review, The Stranger is available on Netflix.