Orson Welles’ The Stranger Free Online, Where 1940s Film Noir Meets Real Horrors of WWII

Did Orson Welles ever make an non-notable movie? Sure, the sheer cin­e­mat­ic impor­tance of Cit­i­zen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shang­hai, and even the famous­ly incom­plete The Mag­nif­i­cent Amber­sons, tend to draw all the atten­tion most peo­ple have for his fil­mog­ra­phy. Make sure you watch those — no self-respect­ing lover of Amer­i­can film could do with­out them — but then look beyond them.

Per­son­al­ly, I yield to no one in my endorse­ment of Welles’ for­mal­ly unique mul­ti-genre qua­si-doc­u­men­tary F for Fake. But first, I sug­gest you look to the top of this post and watch 1946’s The Stranger, a far more main­stream pic­ture (for one can hard­ly trav­el far­ther from the main­stream than F for Fake), and in fact the only Welles film to meet with imme­di­ate box office suc­cess. Con­sid­er­ing what it shows, that may come as a sur­prise.

The pic­ture pits a Unit­ed Nations Nazi hunter, played by Hol­ly­wood Gold­en Age leg­end Edward G. Robin­son, against a Third Reich war crim­i­nal played by Welles him­self. The hunter tracks down the hunt­ed, who has tak­en on a new, near­ly anony­mous iden­ti­ty in small-town Con­necti­cut. The U.N. man becomes des­per­ate to bring the Nazi to jus­tice, the Naz­i’s becomes des­per­ate to live his new life in peace, and his unsus­pect­ing wife becomes des­per­ate to deny the truth about her hus­band’s past. In order to con­vince the lady, Robin­son’s char­ac­ter screens her actu­al footage of Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps. The shock on actress Loret­ta Young’s face was the shock on the faces of Amer­i­can audi­ences; nei­ther pre­vi­ous­ly had much of a chance to see what had real­ly hap­pened in wartime Europe. Leave it to Welles, whose fas­ci­na­tion with and hatred of fas­cism led him to write a series of columns on the sub­ject for the New York Post, to smug­gle this depth of real human hor­ror into what looks at first glance like a plain old 1940s noir thriller.

You will find The Stranger, a film now in the pub­lic domain, list­ed in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Orson Welles on the Art of Act­ing: ‘There is a Vil­lain in Each of Us’

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles’ Sur­re­al­ist First Film (1934)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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