Mr. Wilson (Robinson) is a war crimes investigator who has followed a Nazi war criminal, Konrad Meinike, to Harper, Connecticut. Wilson is hoping to find Meinike's old commander, Franz Kindler, a notorious Nazi criminal and perpetrator of the Holocaust. Meinike escapes Wilson and meets Kindler (Welles), who has assumed the false identity of "Charles Rankin" and is teaching at a prep school in Harper. Kindler kills Meinike and thinks he is safe, but Wilson is still on the case and soon sniffs Kindler out. Mary (Young), who just got married to the charming "Charles Rankin", refuses to believe that her husband is an escaped Nazi, and tries to help him, until Kindler makes a serious mistake.
Welles, who had made something of a bad name for himself in Hollywood by this point, offered to direct The Stranger just to show he could produce a regular studio feature on time and under budget. While this film is not as well remembered as some of his other, more artistic efforts, at the time it was the highest-grossing film he ever made. It's also notable as the first Hollywood film to show actual documentary footage of a liberated Nazi death camp, including a brief shot of a massive pile of dead Holocaust victims.
This film exhibits the following tropes:
- Catapult Nightmare: This happens to Wilson as he realizes that Rankin is Kindler.
- Chiaroscuro: Several artfully lit scenes in shadowy places, such as when Kindler tells a cover story to Mary inside the church.
- Cigarette of Anxiety: Mary needs one after waking up from a nightmare of the weird little man (Meinike) who visited her.
- Clock Tower: Kindler, a clock enthusiast, is fixing the clock in Harper's clock tower. It's the setting for the climax.
- Disney Villain Death: Kindler falls from the clock tower, but not before he's speared by the sword of the angel that spins around the clock.
- Dramatic Irony: "In Harper, there's nothing to be afraid of" says Mary, who's married to a Nazi.
- Epic Tracking Shot: The meeting between Kindler and Meinike is a four-minute scene done without a cut, following them as they meet on a dirt trail and walk into the woods.
- Fainting: Mary faints after finding out that her brother, whom she thought had been killed in Kindler's trap, is still alive.
- Final Solution: Kindler is revealed to have been one of the architects of the Holocaust. The Stranger also shows actual footage of the concentration camps and was one of the first fictional films to do so. Welles stated later, that film-makers must take every opportunity they get to show this footage.Orson Welles: No, you must not miss the newsreels. They make a point this week no man can miss: The war has strewn the world with corpses, none of them very nice to look at. The thought of death is never pretty but the newsreels testify to the fact of quite another sort of death, quite another level of decay. This is a putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage. For some years now we have been calling it Fascism. The stench is unendurable.
- Godzilla Threshold: Wilson's colleagues in the Wars Crimes Commission are appalled at his plan to let Meinike walk out of jail free. He retorts that it's a necessary evil he must commit in order to catch one of the architects of the Holocaust.
- Guns Are Worthless: When Mary goes to confront Rankin in the clocktower, she misses several times and with the last bullet, gives him only a flesh wound in the arm. Justified, because she probably has little experience using a gun.
- Have You Told Anyone Else?: "No one else followed you?" asks Kindler, after Meinike tells him that the man who was following Meinike is dead. Go on and guess what happens to Meinike after he answers "No."
- Heel–Faith Turn: Meinike has found religion following the war, and wants to atone for his crimes during his time under Kindler's command.
- Hitler Cam: Welles popularized this shot with Citizen Kane and uses it here, as in the scene where the maid is being quizzed by Wilson and Mary's father.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Kindler/Rankin ends up being impaled on the clock tower that he has spent much of the film restoring, and where he tried to kill Mary.
- Just Following Orders: "I followed orders," says Kindler at the climax, to which Wilson responds "You gave the orders!"
- Match Cut: From Kindler kicking Mary's dog (which was digging up Meinike's body) to Wilson waking up from his Catapult Nightmare.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Franz Kindler is heavily based on Adolf Eichmann. Like Eichmann, Kindler is described as one of the primary minds behind the Holocaust, and both fled west to hide in the Americas under false identities.
- Out-of-Character Alert: A casual discussion of the German character turns to Karl Marx, which leads Kindler to respond by saying, "But Marx wasn't a German; Marx was a Jew." This causes Wilson to realize that "Charles Rankin" is in fact the man he's been hunting.
- Redemption Equals Death: Meinike has found religion, recoils in horror at Kindler's talk of another war, and asks Kindler to pray with him. Kindler strangles him.
- The Remnant: Kindler fancies himself as this, imagining "the day we strike again."
- Villain Opening Scene: The film opens with a sequence showing Meinike's flight to America and escape from Wilson.