In Harper, There’s Nothing to be Afraid of*
Welles’s war-time writings demonstrated his concern that America, even as it celebrated military victory, might, in its naiveté, overlook the possibility of a rebirth of “fascism in America” which could take root among “the sons of America’s first families.” It is the ways in which Welles blends such historical concerns to various ongoing cultural traditions that make The Stranger a far more important film noir than has been generally thought….
Despite its initial appearance as a “solid, reasonable, sane, ordinary, conventional film,” Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946) presents a multi-levelled portrayal of both American expectations and limitations after the Allied victory in World War II (McBride 88). It is through such form as a cultural document that I want to build upon what earlier critics have referenced about Welles’s production, even while many of them have “treated [it] with general condescen[sion]” (McBride 88; Anderegg 148; Garis 96). Given my previous research that explored American self-understanding in the aftermath of the Civil War as expressed through multitudes of published etiquette manuals dating from George Washington, across the post bellum era, and into the early portions of the twentieth century, I was first drawn to how Welles shaped various sequences of Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson, a government official charged with locating prominent Nazis who had escaped arrest during the chaos surrounding Germany’s surrender in 1945 (Washington 13; Hartley 82; Duffey 52; Egan 33; Post 25; Kasson 44; The Stranger). More specifically, Welles noticeably portrayed Mr. Wilson as consistently wearing his hat in the out of doors, as did gentleman of the era, but also that he would reflexively remove it under almost all conditions upon entering a home or public dwelling (The Stranger). By so doing, Wilson simply adhered to customs long established in American life (Kasson 44). At the same time, Wilson’s acceptance of these traditions were not expressions of propriety for their own sake. I intend to argue that Wilson’s conduct as a gentleman expresses those moral standards which reflected the worth of one’s fellow humans within their unique and singular selfhood (Duffey 16; 21; Hartley 31; Egan 9; 16; 20-21).
While continuing to view the film, however, I was struck by how Welles linked Mr. Wilson’s mannered etiquette with broader issues arising in the aftermath of the Second World War. As both Tony Williams and Joseph McBride note, Welles’s war-time writings demonstrated his concern that America, even as it celebrated military victory, might, in its naiveté, overlook the possibility of a rebirth of “fascism in America” which could take root among “the sons of America’s first families” (26; 33; Revised and Expanded 99; The Stranger). It is the ways in which Welles blends such historical concerns to various ongoing cultural traditions that make The Stranger a far more important film noir than has been generally thought (McBride Whatever Happened to Orson Welles 87-88; Rosenbaum 2; 117; 133; Garis 96; Anderegg 148; Bazin 91; Williams 21-42). Accordingly, I will argue that Welles employs etiquette as an embodiment of the traditions that provided one of the strengths by which Nazi barbarism was defeated. At the same time, The Stranger portrays how even as those same standards conveyed a deep concern for one’s fellows, they did so within a naïve vulnerability that Welles portrayed through his characterizations of, among others, Mary Longstreet Rankin (Loretta Young) and her brother Noah (Richard Long) (The Stranger).
Earlier discussions of the film have tended to follow Welles’s publicly stated view of The Stranger as an ordinary Hollywood film (McBride 88; Anderegg 148; Garis 96). McBride labels it a “relatively straightforward thriller” even as it is “the first Hollywood postwar feature to deal with the Nazi death camps” (88). While noting the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Andre Bazin reflects the standard critical view that other Welles productions were more “distinguished and dazzling” (14). Jonathan Rosenbaum places The Stranger as among those to which he did not provide “extended treatment” even as he added that “Welles scholarship has been undermined by … journalistic shortcuts [and] the perceived need to fill in blank spaces in order to offer a coherent picture of the career and oeuvre” (2; 3). Michael Anderegg notes some “Brechtian principles … [that] contribute a rich and complex dimension,” and argues, in near isolation among Welles critics, that “[t]he key to understanding what [the film] achieves … lies in seeing that the actor and the character [Orson Welles and Franz Kindler] are locked in an irresoluble conflict” (148). Williams extends these approaches by placing The Stranger squarely within its broad historical framework by levelling criticism at the efforts of central officials within the American government, such as the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles who, among other acts of treason, engaged in “discussions with a close associate of Henrich Himmler” to prevent President Franklin Roosevelt from bringing “Nazi war criminals to justice” (31-33). It is more than an irony that John Foster Dulles’s efforts were also cloaked in an aura of “’Christian peace’” even while Americans expressed their support of Allied war aims by following the stipulations of etiquette that rooted themselves in their proclamation of loving God and one’s neighbor by doing unto others as they would have done unto them (31-33; Hartley 31; Egan 48-49; Young 15).
Beyond these critical efforts, the manner by which Welles emphasizes the traditions of etiquette and propriety will serve as another means to understand his film as an exploration of American life during the immediate post-war era (147-149). In two sequences near the beginning and ending of the film, The Stranger frames long-standing assumptions of mannered etiquette as vehicles of both continuity with and warning to a complacent public. With understated brilliance, Welles utilizes these conventions of etiquette and manners, still standing tall in 1945 and 1946 as a principal means of American hegemony, to expose how those same assumptions also contained the seeds of their potential undoing (The Stranger).
Setting his film in the ideal post-war village of Harper, Connecticut, Welles portrays that somehow and for possibly close to three years, one Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), a former high-ranking Nazi official directly responsible for conceiving and implementing the Holocaust, has been hiding in plain sight as Charles Rankin, a history teacher at the local Boy’s Academy (The Stranger; Williams 36). By not making clear how Kindler came to Harper, gained acceptance among its upper echelon of citizens, found employment to instruct its sons at the Academy, or soon becoming engaged to Mary Longstreet, the local daughter of a “liberal” Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court, Welles establishes that no one in Harper had even conceived the possibility of upper-echelon “Nazi administrators [being granted] false papers weeks before Germany’s defeat” that allowed them to escape from Europe, to say nothing of finding their way to their own idyllic village (Sereny 276; Williams 32). Kindler, of course, would have been one of those “Nazi administrators,” and is described by Mr. Wilson as having taken the time to eliminate every photographic or written reference concerning himself while he perhaps sought to take advantage of John Foster Dulles’s “’ratlines’” to the United States soon upon the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 (Williams 32; 36; Sereny 276; The Stranger). Among other actual Nazis who utilized these routes that brought them to openly receptive countries such as Argentina and Brazil were, of course, the well-known figures Adolph Eichmann and Dr. Joseph Mengele (Sereny 346; Williams 39). Another of those escaping Nazis, one Franz Stangl, had been Commandant at the Sobibor and Treblinka death-camps during the early years of the war (Sereny 355-356). After being captured in Brazil during 1967, Stangl was removed to face charges in [then] West Germany. Throughout the years between his incarceration and trial, he had a series of conversations with the British writer Gitta Sereny that were eventually published as Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (1974) (355-356). After her visits with Stangl, Sereny concludes, that “[i]t cannot be questioned that escapers … did in the final analysis receive important assistance from two organizations which – to put it mildly – allowed themselves to be grievously misused in aiding of individuals so dreadfully implicated [in Nazi atrocities]: the International Red Cross, and the Vatican” (277). Williams also establishes the complicity of American officials such as (at the least) the Dulles brothers who provided lifelines to Nazi officials as their regime’s defeat became more and more apparent (39). While the specific thought process that allowed these “organizations” to give assistance to men responsible for mass genocide lies beyond the scope of this examination, the bare fact that Welles establishes Kindler’s presence as a respected participant in post-war American stability expresses both the strength and subsequent vulnerability of how those who welcomed him as “Charles Rankin” envisioned themselves at the center of a triumphant, stable, and yet dangerously unaware world order (277; Williams 24-26; 31-33; 39; The Stranger).
The manner by which Welles emphasizes the traditions of etiquette and propriety will serve as another means to understand his film as an exploration of American life during the immediate post-war era.
Welles explores these conditions early in his film at a dinner which celebrates the return of Mary and Charles Rankin from their honeymoon (The Stranger). Serving as the evening hostess and holding the festivities in her childhood home, Mary leads the guests toward the dining table where they will enjoy each other’s company. In attendance are her father, Supreme Court Associate Justice Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale), her brother Noah, the local physician and veterinarian Dr. Jeffrey Lawrence (Byron Keith), and Mr. Wilson, posing in Harper as an antique dealer with a specialization in European clocks (The Stranger). The meal itself is spread around a formal table decorated with elegance and, quite apparently, the utmost of expected settings (Anderegg 148; The Stranger). Within such a quiet acceptance of traditional propriety, Welles establishes the framework for his more pointed historical exploration. Adhering to the understood specifications of etiquette as noted in various manuals, Mary as “hostess seat[ed] herself at the head of the table” (Hartley 50-51; Duffey 67; Egan 42). At Mary’s invitation, Mr. Wilson occupies “the place of honor” to her right, and by implication also takes the place of her husband for the evening (42). Rankin, after pulling out Mary’s chair, occupies a place to her left, and the other guests assume their places along either side of the table with easy order (Duffey 67-68; Egan 42; The Stranger). By allowing Wilson to occupy what would normally have been his chair at the table, Rankin does more, however, than recognize the continued sway of etiquette and manners across much of American society (Duffey 67; 80-81). His behavior masks the way he uses the American traditions of manners and etiquette as vehicles that strengthened his access to the levers of cultural power, and by doing so, utilizes their constancy as a means through which he and his fellow escaped Nazis became able, at the right time, to “strike again” (The Stranger).
Effortlessly staged, Welles uses this multi-layered short scene to indicate how these established behavioral guideposts had not only survived the war, but stood as a principal means through which Americans assumed that they attained final victory in 1945. From a sense of order rooted in shared decency around a common table, even as class distinctions were also apparent, Welles presents a sequence where each person has a valued place while they together share in post-war American plenty (The Stranger). Given that the Nazi movement had, in fact, been militarily vanquished, these assumptions were, of course, quite logically made. At the same time, such acceptance had been continued by a transparent unwillingness to question how Rankin had first arrived in Harper, and the ease by which he had ingratiated himself among its prominent citizens such as Justice Longstreet, Noah, and, especially, Mary (Sereny 142; 217; 276; Williams 32; The Stranger).
Subsequent to developments in which Mr. Wilson later begins to unravel Rankin as Kindler, Welles presents a second sequence of American post-war expectations that both affirms its role in military victory while also potentially undermining the principles upon which that triumph stood (The Stranger). Early in the film, Welles establishes how Mr. Wilson arranges for the escape of one Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), whom he later describes to Mary as the “commander in charge of one of the more efficient concentration camps,” with the hope that a reunion with Kindler will point the way to his arrest by the American government (The Stranger). Having information that Kindler lives in Harper, and while being pursued by Mr. Wilson, Meinike locates his former superior only to tell him of his conversion to God’s will rather than a desire to wait for the proper moment to bring about a Nazi restoration (The Stranger). Sensing the danger, Rankin strangles and buries Meinike in the woods just outside of town (The Stranger). Soon enough, the Longstreet’s dog Red starts to unearth the contents of the grave. Aware that the local merchant Mr. Potter (Billy House), Noah, and Mary, given their earlier encounters with Meinike, would recognize his even partially decomposed corpse, Rankin manages to poison the dog while concocting a plausible explanation that Mary, in naiveté and love for her husband, would accept (The Stranger). Noah, who discovered Red in the woods and now accompanied by Mr. Wilson, visits Dr. Lawrence’s office so that the manner of the dog’s death might be ascertained.
More than a needed plot device, Welles’s placement of Noah with Mr. Wilson as they continue to expose Rankin’s actual identity also opens the same concern for larger issues developing within post-1945 American life. As one of those whom Rankin calls “the sons of America’s first families,” Noah has inherited the expectation that he will continue the civic duty and noblesse oblige of his father and their ancestors dating back to 1781 (The Stranger; Williams 29). Welles presents Noah as serious of manner, compassionate toward his fellows, and protective of his sister (The Stranger; Williams 29). While he and Mr. Wilson cross Harper’s town square upon leaving Dr. Lawrence’s office, Noah expresses himself from the same moral center which simultaneously underscores a staggering naiveté that conveys Welles’s fear of a reborn fascism across the United States (Williams 26; McBride Revised and Expanded 99; The Stranger).
Carrying Red’s body in his arms, Noah asks Mr. Wilson “[w]hat does the law say about this kind of murder? Is it the same as killing a man?” Impatient in his anger, Noah answers from his own morally rooted, if not legally based, conclusion, “[w]ell, it ought to be.” (The Stranger). Within Noah’s question and response to himself, Welles portrays how Americans after victory continued to see themselves as the guarantors of principled fairness and defenders of those, even if they are dogs, who were unable to protect themselves (The Stranger; Duffey 13). As a young man whose life has been shaped toward his becoming a “Christian gentleman,” Noah draws upon the proprieties of etiquette and manners with an emotional struggle that was both reasonable and proportionate (Egan 49; The Stranger).
The Stranger provides both reassurance and warning to post-war Americans who may well have been hoping for a return to a 1930s-like isolationism.
At the same time, for the teenage son of a Supreme Court justice to ask if legal statutes of murder are equally applicable between a dog and a person reveals an extraordinary lack of civic awareness that suggests, as Williams puts it, a “xenophobi[a] eager to forget the lessons of the recent past – assuming, of course, that they had taken any interest in the outside world at all” (24; The Stranger). Noah’s question further exposes the sort of education he had been receiving at the Harper Academy as a member of an American “first fami[ly]” (The Stranger). By implication, Noah all but discloses how the Academy’s curriculum has focused upon the mannered refinement of these young men to solidify their places as “Christian gentlemen” while completely missing the point of exemplifying that his root vocation stands on the ground of love for his fellows (Egan 49; The Stranger). Through Noah’s question and answer, Welles conveys that in their post-war naiveté and desire for isolationism, Americans may be well behaved, but assume to their potential downfall that others, such as Kindler who present themselves as “’one of us,’” do not have the same motives of doing unto others as they would have done unto them (Williams 24; Egan 16; Hartley 31; Young 16). Fortunately guided by Mr. Wilson toward the issue at hand by affirming his moral underpinnings, Noah also begins to understand that his anger over Red’s murder, to say nothing of how his complicity with virtually accepting Rankin among Harper’s inner circle, needs to be buttressed by a grasp of complexity that roots itself in both the traditions of a “Christian gentleman” and the ambiguities of his time (The Stranger; Egan 49; Williams 29).
It is with that sense of small, tenuous hope that Welles moves toward the climactic moment of his film. Once Mary confronts her husband and, by doing so, admits that she has married a Nazi, Rankin-Kindler retreats to his final bastion inside Harper’s clock tower (The Stranger; Williams 34-36). Many of the town’s citizens storm the building with much the same zeal as do the mobs who surround their own monsters in John Whale’s two productions of Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (The Stranger; Williams 26). Given that Harper’s tower also serves as the principal church for her “first families,” their surrounding of Rankin-Kindler reflects an American cultural theology which expresses a hope for absolution of themselves by their still well-mannered, but perpetually unthinking, conformity through which they first welcomed, but now pronounce judgment upon the monster in their own tower (26; The Stranger).
Consistent with his stated claim to have made a near-formulaic film, Welles provides a conventional ending in which evil perishes by its own creation (or, in Kindler-Rankin’s case, re-creation) as the stable order of post-1945 American life is apparently cleansed for coming generations (McBride 88; Anderegg 148; Garis 96; The Stranger). Welles suggests, at least in part however, that such stability remains grounded in operative standards of propriety connected to an American evangelical Protestantism which affirms the dignity of each human individual. That sense of mannered stability did, in fact, aid American efforts to defeat Nazi barbarism. Nonetheless, from Welles’s view, the presumptions from which these expectations arose contain a noticeable vulnerability that believes such respect to be a universally undpremise despite centuries of evidence to the contrary. Within that context, The Stranger provides both reassurance and warning to post-war Americans who may well have been hoping for a return to a 1930s-like isolationism (Williams 24). Given the events of these almost 80 subsequent years, one might further speculate about the nature of Mary’s comment that “there’s nothing to fear in Harper” (The Stranger). From Welles’s perspective, there appears to have been a good deal more present than simply fear itself.
*During my years of doctoral study at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I had the distinct pleasure of taking three film classes from Dr. Tony Williams. It is through the spirit of appreciation for his insights that I extend thanks for his ongoing support of my work. My gratitude extends in the present instance for encouraging the development of my perspectives, and for taking the time to mail me a copy of his 2016 article on Welles’s film.
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Richmond B. Adams, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar living and serving in Pawnee, Oklahoma.