Leaving Netflix this week is the 1946 film noir The Stranger. I watched it, for my first time, before it went away.
The Stranger was directed by Orson Welles and he also starred it, as the lead villain. By some measures this was Welles’ most successful film, earning triple its roughly million-dollar budget back in slightly over a year. In fact, Welles was hired to make the film under rather strict terms specifically as a test to see whether he could bring a project in on time and under budget, which he did. It was also the first time footage from the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps was shown in an entertainment film. Welles has seen some of the news footage as it was being prepared.
Details of this story trap the film within the time when it was made. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a Holocaust mastermind who has managed to escape the fall of Nazi Germany and done so without leaving behind any clue as to his identity. Nazi-hunter “Mr. Wilson,” play by real-life anti-fascist fanatic Edward G. Robinson, releases a lower-rung concentration camp functionary from prison in a ploy to discover Kindler’s whereabouts. This gambit leads Wilson to small-town Connecticut, where he must catch Kindler in the act (of some sort) so as to bring him to justice.
The premise feels off within the context of today’s knowledge. While we all know that some Nazi managed to flee the justice of the Nuremberg trials and we did feel it was important to hold them responsible for their crimes, the film takes it further. Kindler is portrayed as a genuine threat to the post-war peace. He fled Germany not only to escape punishment, the film implies, but to prepare for the time when the fascists could rise again. It’s a theme that was repeated*, but seems to have largely died out with the Nazi war criminals themselves.
Another telltale sign-of-the-times is the inclusion, as a major plot point, of pop psychology. Our leading lady has married Kindler, having fallen in love with his assumed (American) identity. Although presented with compelling facts that he is, indeed, a war criminal, she does not want to believe them. Wilson assures us that we need only wait. Her “subconscious” has now learned the truth. As her denial fights with this subconscious, it will lead to a “breakdown.” Said breakdown will force Kindler to reveal himself. It feels a bit foolish today. At the time this was likely adding the feeling of cutting-edge, scientific innovation which made the story seem more urgent. More timely.
Perhaps some of the flatness was due to studio meddling. Welles has complained about his lack of creative control and intended extensive scenes intended to increase the tension. There may have been a film more capable of lasting seventy-some years hidden away in there. To me, today, Frank seems less menacing than just someone who you know has no moral compunction against killing pretty much everyone, yet he probably won’t.
The timeliness of the film was also in the inclusion of the Nuremberg themes, even in advance of the Nuremberg trials. The movie was filmed in 1945 and was released in July of 1946, still months before the start of the trials. The full extent of Hitler’s atrocities were not generally understood by many Americans. Like our leading lady, regular folks simply could not accept that mass murder, on the order of 6 million lives systematically taken, had actually occurred. In a way, The Stranger was a way to sell the extravagance of Nuremberg and the Nazi-hunting effort to the masses. This more so than a real warning about the dangers of lurking war criminals in small-town U.S.A.
Another historical quirk of the film is that, as of 1973, the copyright was not renewed. This places the movie in the public domain. This would seem, to me, to place The Stranger in a ideal position for streaming services. For little more than the cost of hosting the file, a membership service gets content for its viewers. Particularly if the likes of Netflix made an effort to feature higher-quality works, both artistically and technologically, they could add a depth to their services that, I’d think, members would appreciate.
For all of that, the “classics” seem notably absent from streaming services. I myself would love to rewatch the old monster movies (Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff era for example) that featured on afternoon TV or budget reel rentals when I was little, but these don’t seem available. In The Stranger, we have a commercially successful, well regarded film noir piece that would seem to be free of intellectual property complexities. Clearly any technical hurdles associated with getting a decent-quality print loaded into the streaming system have been resolved. Now the film gets taken down?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I don’t understand the streaming business.
*I’m thinking 70s movies such as The Boys from Brazil or The Odessa File. Or perhaps the rumors that Hitler survived the war and was living in Argentina.