After World War II, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is hard at work rounding up Nazi war criminals and seeing that they are punished. One Nazi in particular who has evaded his reach is Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). In hopes of finding Kindler, Wilson releases Kindler’s old friend Konrad Meinike thinking that Meinike will go to see Kindler, wherever he is. Sure enough, he does and Wilson follows him to Harper, Connecticut where Kindler has assumed the identity of Professor Charles Rankin and is engaged to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.
In fact, Meinike and Wilson arrive in Harper on the day Mary and Charles are set to be married. Meinike knows he’s being followed and evades Wilson long enough to find Charles, but obviously, this is not a happy reunion. Meinike has seen the error of his ways and tries to convince Charles to turn himself in, but Charles isn’t about to give up his new life so easily. He strangles Meinike and buries the body in the woods before going on with the wedding. But what Charles doesn’t realize is that Meinike had talked to Mary about where to find him. Over the next few days, Wilson does some investigating and concludes that Charles is really Kindler. He even recruits Mary’s brother Noah (Richard Long) to help him nab Charles. But the only person who can definitely tie Charles to Meinike is Mary. Meanwhile, there’s someone else posing a threat to Charles’ new identity — Mary’s dog. When Charles takes Mary’s dog for a walk in the woods, it starts digging at the area where Charles buried Meinike, so he poisons the dog. When Noah finds the dog dead, he and Wilson start investigating more and Meinike’s body is found.
Charles really starts getting nervous when Wilson questions Mary about whether or not she’d seen Meinike. Charles tries to keep her quiet by concocting a story about how Meinike had been trying to blackmail him so he killed him to protect her. Mary desperately wants to believe her husband and protect him, but it gets harder when Wilson shows her horrifying footage from concentration camps and tells her about how her husband was responsible for all that suffering. Even then, Mary doesn’t want to believe this about her husband. But Wilson knows that Charles is very likely to try to kill Mary next and he’s right. At last, Mary is able to accept the awful truth about the man she married.
There isn’t a single thing about The Stranger that I didn’t like. The cast was great all around. Loretta Young totally nailed the innocence and naivety her character needed. It’s got plenty of suspense, I didn’t think there was a dull moment in the movie. I know Orson Welles didn’t think very highly of this movie, largely because he wasn’t given as much creative control as he would have liked. But I think this is a case where limitations may have worked to the film’s advantage. There were about 20-30 minutes worth of scenes that Welles had wanted in the film that were cut by the studio. Although I’d love for those lost scenes to surface someday, I thought the movie was just right in terms of length. For how outstanding The Stranger is, it’s a somewhat underrated Orson Welles movie. It’s awfully hard not to be overshadowed by The Third Man, Citizen Kane, or The Lady From Shanghai and I wouldn’t put The Stranger on par with any of those, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic movie.