Pen and Scalpel: The Stranger: A Study in Evil

If you write Fiction, sooner or later you’ll need a villain. Call him an Antagonist or just a bad guy, and they need to be well-composed. Let’s face it, the goons that invaded Nakatomi Plaza would have lasted an hour at most of it wasn’t for Hans Gruber leading them. Die Hard is richer for having a Great Bad Guy.

The Stranger  1946 RKO Pictures
The Stranger. 1946 RKO Studios

We love to hate the bad guys most of the time. However, some are beyond liking in any way. Enter Orson Welles as director and star of The Stranger. Produced in 1946, it was the first time American citizens saw actual Holocaust footage from the Dachau Prison Camp. The shocking footage perfectly complimented the film’s villain, Franz Kindler.

Franz Kindler had been the second-highest ranking of all the Nazis, just behind Himmler. The Holocaust against the Jews originated with Kindler, who never appeared in public. No one knows what he looks like, and he escaped the Allied nets before Germany fell. No photos of him exist, and there is only one person alive who knows him personally, a Nazi vermin named Meineke.
Wilson, working for the OSS, lets Meineke out of jail. The former Nazi heads to America, winding up in the small town of Harper, Connecticut. Mr. Wilson follows him to Harper, intent on catching Meineke together with Kindler. Kindler and Meineke meet, and Kindler takes the little man out of town and out of sight. Meineke’s strangled body lies in the woods near the clock tower, the cornerstone for the city.
The Stranger. 1946 RKO Studios
Wilson only has one clue to the identity of Kindler. The man has an obsession with clocks. Mr. Potter, the owner of the general store, tells Wilson that someone is repairing the tower clock. This information makes Wilson smile. He asks Potter who is repairing the tower clock. The name he gives Wilson shocks him. It’s Charles Rankin, a professor at the local college. Rankin is very popular and well-liked in Harper. In fact, the day Wilson arrives, Rankin is marrying Mary Longstreet, Supreme Court Judge Longstreet’s daughter.
Up to this point, we have seen Rankin kill someone and bury them in the woods, kill Mary’s dog after he digs up the dead man, and near kills Wilson in a dark, empty gymnasium. Everyone loves Charles Rankin, but we now know how evil he is. Welles does an excellent job playing the evil Kindler and the benevolent Rankin, often in the same scene. Kindler/Rankin personifies the pure evil of Nazi Germany. While he speaks soothing words to everyone, we can see the hatred for the same people in Rankin’s eyes.

Wilson is posing as an art dealer and has everyone fooled except Charles Rankin. Rankin and Wilson finally meet at a dinner party, and we can see that both know who the other really is. Dinner talk turns to World War Two and Wilson almost tricks Rankin into revealing his true nature. Now Wilson is sure who Franz Kindler is.

What follows is an exquisite game of cat and mouse between Good and Evil. While Wilson gathers allies in town to spy on Charles, Rankin looks for ways to lure Wilson to his death. The look of fear can be seen in Rankin’s eyes as his world, once the size of Europe, is now just the town of Harper and is growing smaller by the hour.

The Stranger. 1946 RKO Studios

Franz Kindler had plans to hide in the middle of America’s First Families while waiting for a 4th Reich to rise. Those calculations come crashing down when Mary realizes the truth that Wilson has shown her. When Rankin kisses Mary, she recoils from his touch. Rankin must kill her now to cover up his identity. The list of people who know who he is is far too extensive for him to eliminate, so he makes the only decision that bullies always make when outsmarted. He runs.

The Stranger is one of the best examinations of Evil ever presented in films. It shows how Evil can fool an entire nation with poison they willingly swallow. We also see how that same poison can take root anywhere if we are not careful. In these turbulent times, we have good companies lured, whether by blind intent or plain ignorance, openly supported obviously evil causes in the name of doing the right thing. Perhaps these good people need to watch The Stranger. They may see the error of their ways.

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