Every Friday, our resident film fanatic Alex Aciman will dig deep into the pile of cinematic masterpieces and fish out one forgotten classic you should watch soonest.
In 1946, Orson Welles directed and starred in The Stranger, a film about a former Nazi living under cover in an idyllic American town. I can only imagine that this film—which was one of the earliest prototypes of the “Nazis hiding out in America” genre—spoke to one of the greatest postwar paranoias. Wells plays a high-ranking Nazi who has taken a job as a history teacher in a New England prep school and is engaged to the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. His new life begins to unravel when a fellow former Nazi comes to find him. Meanwhile, a law man played by Edward G. Robinson begins to sniff out Welles’ character, whom the government has been trying to locate since the end of the war.
What makes The Stranger so compelling is not just the dive into a 1940s geopolitical threat, but the fact that it showcases several of the greatest film noir tropes that would almost be taken for granted over the next few decades. You can mix and match the following elements in order to build a mid-level noir.
While detective fiction often relies on the charisma or charm of a protagonist with depth, a lot of noir cinema actually follows a nondescript straight-man character who is almost nothing more than a stand-in for law and order. Often he will be much older than the victim (who is almost always a woman), to eliminate the possibility of sexual tension. Edward G. Robinson’s character has neither past, nor internal life, nor melancholic wit. He is but an agent of the law.
Noir often speaks to the aspiring victim within us. Many of these films are about ordinary people specifically because it allows us to imagine ending up on the wrong end of a gun, or being grifted and manipulated to the point where we lose something fundamental about ourselves. This is what makes noir so harrowing at times. The Stranger exists in a world of close-knit families and bright-eyed pupils. This is a world of ordinary victims.
In noir, criminals dress themselves in the trappings of the American ivory tower in order to obscure their sinister pasts. Storied institutions and glamorous social circles lend immediate credibility to the man with no credentials—they allow him to blend in by rising fast. And so The Stranger takes place in a small preppy town in Connecticut, where Orson Welles can hide in plain sight as a much-loved prep school teacher.
But perhaps most typical of noir is the way The Stranger blurs the threat of an unstoppable political apparatus with the deeds of individual bad men. There is no conspiracy or web of lies as dangerous, as insidious as the lone agent driven to the edge with nothing left to him but his rage and his pistol. The threat of an insurgent Nazi uprising seems tame compared to Orson Welles when he finally goes rogue.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.