Nazi war criminal hunter Mr Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is putting his foot down: he has a plan and he means to see it come to fruition. He strongly suggests that allowing a lower level Nazi to escape, to "leave his cell door open", will enable the Allies to catch a bigger fish in their net, none other than Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), a high ranking though young official who had quite a bit of say in the implementation of the Holocaust. Wilson's fellow hunters eventually agree to go along with him, and so a trail leading from Germany to South America and up to the United States is where the hapless stooge leads them, eventually settling in small town Connecticut...
Welles considered this his worst film of the ones he directed, not that he hated it, he simply didn't rank it as highly as his others. Taking the project on to prove he could helm a simple entertainment now his perceived "artistic" leanings were making him unpopular in the movie business, the result was the biggest hit of his career - at the time it was released at any rate. Nowadays it is a public domain film, often seen in fuzzy prints on budget labels or on late night television, which is a shame when Russell Metty's much-acclaimed cinematography deserves to be appreciated on as clean and crisp a presentation as possible.
It is that general appearance of the film that was its strongest suit, as the plot tended towards the hokey, surprising for a subject matter which was very much in the headlines of the day. When he is tracked down, Welles makes a more convincing hounded killer than he does a top ranking Nazi, in spite of the speeches he gives his character, one of many touches which make it somewhat incredible that Kindler evaded capture for as long as he did. The way he lets slip his opinions on Jews, the way he casually draws a swastika on a public telephone notepad, his tendency to perspire and look shifty at the drop of a light accusation from Wilson, all this practically screams his guilt.
So when that small fry Nazi mysteriously vanishes, leaving his luggage behind, everyone's suspicions are raised, even those not looking to track down war criminals. However, the only person who can incriminate Kindler is his wife Mary (Loretta Young), a character who seems unworldly in ways that are hard to believe, as even when she does cotton on to his scheme and the fact that he killed that little foreign man who arrived at the house asking for him, she refuses to accept that her husband had anything to do with the enormity of the crimes he is being accused of otherwise. Young tries hard, but cannot prevent Mary from seeming anything other than irritatingly daft, closing her mind to the obvious.
Rather better is the antagonism between Kindler and Wilson, even though they are given disappointingly few chances to face off against each other until the end where all is revealed. Robinson's dogged determination is appropriate to his role, and you spend the film willing him to uncover yet another piece of a puzzle that for some reason he knows the solution to but cannot act upon it until he has that vital element of proof. No matter that the second someone like that thought they had their man they would act without delay - Wilson's caution nearly costs more lives - the game of wits that these two men engage in contributes well to a suspense that might otherwise not have been present. There is a surprisingly violent finale well worth waiting for, but mainly The Stranger is interesting for being one of those forties films which informed the paranoia of the following decade's thrillers and science fiction. Music by Bronislau Kaper.