Orson Welles plainly gets much pleasure out of playing villainous roles, to judge by his choice and performance of bogey-men in the past. And now, in his new film, "The Stranger," which he directed and in which he plays the title role, he is proving beyond any question that he loves to scare people to death. For in this custom-made melodrama, which came to the Palace yesterday, he is playing the role of the big-brain behind the Nazi torture camps. Nothing less, mind you! He's the inventor of their monstrous mass-murder machine.
Only—this is the crux of the story—all that is behind him now, and he is living successfully incognito in a little Connecticut town, teaching school at a peaceful little college and married to the daughter of a judge. And, indeed, everything is going nicely until a G-man blows into town, tailing a former Nazi prisoner who is the unconscious finger-man. Then Mr. Welles, as the erstwhile monster, begins to feel hot breath on his neck, and his nostrils begin to flange out and his eyes to pop and roll. The first thing you know he is plotting the murder of his knowledgeful wife—and he would, indeed, kill that poor innocent if the G-man did not step in. At the end Mr. Welles, puffing wildly and sweating at every pore, is impaled on a sword held by a figure atop a church—a critic, no doubt.
We say that because the performance of Mr. Welles in the title role is one of the less convincing features of this film. At least, to this hopeful observer, he gave no illusion of the sort of depraved and heartless creatures that the Nazi mass-murderers were. He is just Mr. Welles, a young actor, doing a boyishly bad acting job in a role which is highly incredible—another weak feature of the film.
As a matter of fact, the writing of "The Stranger," by Anthony Veiller, is the weakest thing about it—and that estimation includes another silly performance by Loretta Young as the killer's wife. For the premise is not only farfetched, but the whole construction of the tale relieves very soon all the mystery and suspense that such a story should have. Thus the whole thing becomes a routine and mechanical cat-and-rat chase, with the outcome completely apparent, despite a few bright and clever twists.
It is true that Mr. Welles has directed his camera for some striking effects, with lighting and interesting angles much relied on in his technique. The fellow knows how to make a camera dynamic in telling a tale. And it is true, too, that Edward G. Robinson is well restrained as the unrelenting sleuth and that Billy House does a superb job as a small-town clerk and gossiper. But the whole film, produced by S. P. Eagle, comes off a bloodless, manufactured show. The atom-bomb newsreels on the same bill are immeasurably more frightening.
Bosley Crowther, New York Times. 11/07/1946