In Harper, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Harper, Connecticut is the type of small town that Norman Rockwell invented. The prep school boys’ most bacchanalian ritual is their annual paper chase. The drugstore owner, also the town clerk, takes all comers in checkers at 25c a game. The town is so idyllic that you’d forget that World War II had just ended. The Harper resident perhaps at the peak of his fortune is Professor Charles Rankin (Orson Welles), a beloved instructor at the local high school who is about to marry the daughter (Loretta Young) of a Supreme Court justice.
All this is cast into disarray when a small foreign man arrives in Harper. He seeks out Rankin and greets him familiarly: as Franz Kindler, one of the architects of the Third Reich’s “Final Solution.” Kindler lures the newcomer into the woods and, pretending to pray with the man, strangles him to death. He buries the man’s body in soft earth, covered with leaves, and here the central tension of the story begins.
The Stranger suffers from some issues of pacing. There’s a prologue of sorts in which Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a sort of itinerant agent / special prosecutor for the War Crimes tribunal, frees and then follows the man who will lead him to Kindler. The prologue not only adds little – you’d think if anyone would understand escaped Nazi war criminals as antagonists, it would be a 1946 audience – but it blunts the suspense of the first act. Once we know that the first man the escapee fingers is secretly a Nazi, we lose any reason to root for him.
Further, the cat-and-mouse game between Wilson and Kindler, which stretches the tension of the film to its inevitable breaking point, also stretches the thin tissue of disbelief. Kindler has apparently been so good at destroying his past identity that no photos of him exist, so it’s not clear what further proof Wilson needs before accusing Rankin of being Kindler. And yet he circles the professor at arm’s length, recruiting first Rankin’s new brother-in-law and then his new wife, as agents.
But every noir needs a certain element of melodrama – not just mortal forces, but the world itself conspiring to bring a bad man to justice – and Welles can deliver melodrama on cue. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he delivers a telling analysis of the German national character, claiming that a loyal German “cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing [...] Men of truth everwhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German.” Part smokescreen, part subconscious expiation, it puts Wilson on his scent. Later, Kindler’s paranoia drives him to hypnagogically doodling swastikas, or absently teaching his students about Friedrich de Grosse, rather than “Frederick the Great.” Kindler strings his wife along with improbable lies – how he was blamed for a girl’s suicide in Geneva, and how the little foreign man who visited Harper was blackmailing him – that nearly drive her mad when she realizes the truth. She thrusts a fireplace poker at him, taunting him to kill her: “When you kill me, don’t put your hands on me. Use this!”
Kindler’s one identifying feature is his fixation on clocks, a fixation that “Rankin” demonstrates by repairing the long-dormant tower clock in Harper’s church. This gives plenty of opportunities for Welles to stalk in and out of shadowy lofts at late hours. It also provides the film’s most obvious metaphor. Even after the war in Europe, Harper is idyllic, innocent America – a town where time has stopped. Once Kindler fixes the town clock, his neighbors gently chide him with complaints that the chiming of the hours keeps them from sleeping, a parallel to Kindler’s own trapped conscience. The clock tower features prominently and lethally in the film’s final confrontation. If Harper is the town that World War II forgot, then the newly working clock is time literally catching up with Harper and with Kindler, dragging America into a confrontation with evil.