There are some who think that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane used many techniques that would become common in film noir, namely the use of light and shadow. Citizen Kane did not have a film noir plot, but Welles would end up making films in the noir mold, such as The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and The Stranger, from 1946.
The Stranger fits sort of sideways in the noir category. It’s not in a urban setting, and it’s not hard-boiled. The characters are well-to-do and educated, and the central crime is not about a small-time robbery–instead it’s the biggest crime of the 20th century. But it is a noir film, because the main character is the villain, while the hero is shoved aside to the periphery.
Welles stars as a Nazi war criminal–we are told he was the architect of the death camps–posing as a mild-mannered professor in a bucolic New England town. He’s being hunted by Edward G. Robinson and his task force, but they have no idea where he is, until his old colleague, who has suddenly found religion, tracks him down, with agents following him. The colleague leads Robinson to the small Connecticut town, but he loses him before he can pinpoint the Nazi’s precise whereabouts. Welles, realizing what’s happened, murders his old assistant and starts sweating it out.
This film is a masterpiece of tension. After a certain point, Welles knows Robinson is looking for him and Robinson knows Welles is his man (after a remark about Marx not being German, but a Jew–who else would think that way?) Welles, in order to blend in to the American upper-class, has married the daughter of a Supreme Court justice (Loretta Young), and he creates a cover story about being blackmailed by the brother of an ex-lover. Robinson has to convince her that she’s in danger, but she backs her husband–until the end, of course.
The film has masterful Welles’ touches, such as his repeated use of close-ups of smoking pipes, and his use of a clock tower in the town’s church. Robinson tells people that Welles was almost completely unknown to authorities, except for one thing–his obsession with clocks. Need I tell you that the climax of the film takes place in the clock tower?
The Stranger is also notable for it being the first film to actual film from the death camps. Robinson shows the film of piles of bodies and a gas chamber to Young to show her the man she married. It’s a powerful scene as we watch her, the reflected images flickering across her astonished face.