Orson Welles ended the Second World War in a much worse state than his fellow filmmakers who fought, John Ford or John Huston. Reformed, Welles wanted to contribute to the war effort by filming It’s All True (1942), an unfinished documentary intended to promote understanding between the United States and Latin America.

His enemies accused him of putting the film’s budget, mainly financed by the RKO studio, with the government guarantee, at the service of his artistic whims. Before thanking him, RKO mutilated The Ambersons (1942), the second film by the author of Citizen Kane (1941). Welles is persona non grata in Hollywood.

So much so that the only opportunity he found to get back behind the camera was an independent production, set up by producer Sam Spiegel. The Stranger (“L’Etranger”, 1946) – which became Le Criminel in France – is an immediate post-war drama, written by Victor Trivas, a Russian immigrant who worked in Germany and France before leaving. settled in Los Angeles (California).

The stranger in question is named Franz Kindler. It is Orson Welles himself who plays him. The man is presented as the creator of the idea of ​​genocide and found refuge in Harper, a town in Connecticut, where he became a teacher under the name Charles Rankin. This is where Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator from the War Crimes Commission, finds him.

Facing the horror

Filming took place in the fall of 1945, at the very moment when the Nuremberg trials opened. One of the most striking sequences features the screening of films filmed during the liberation of the Nazi camps, which the investigator shows to the citizens of Harper. Despite the banality of the plot and the poverty of the dialogue (which his contract forbade Welles to touch), The Criminal is an early and often magnificent attempt to confront the horror that has just shaken the world.

Shot on a Hollywood set, the film is bathed in an atmosphere of strangeness. This distortion of reality is due, as Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas point out, in Orson Welles at work (Cahiers du cinéma, 2006), to the “dislocation of spaces”, which will become one of the principles of implementation. Welles scene.

There is also talk, in this film, of a clock with characters, which immigrated from Europe who knows how to lodge at the top of the Harper bell tower. The circle of the demon and the angel which marks the hours becomes a choreographic representation of the forces which clash below, until the characters climb the ladder which leads to the bell tower and The Criminal ends in a a horror that is not entirely liberating.