Nazism is a natural enemy of left leaning filmmakers. So many films are made that pit Nazis as the ultimate villain. This film is no different. However what sets this film a part from other films about Nazis being evil and corrupting good upstanding citizens of America are the performances.
Edward G. Robinson is great here as the man who never quits until he gets his man. When I first watched the ending of the film, I thought his last line was sort of ridiculous, but when I re-watched it and then thought about it, the ridiculous line turned into something that needed to be said by him. He made it into an essential part of the finale, a way of comforting this woman who he essentially terrorized into seeing the truth. The script itself is quite heavy-handed when it comes to his character, but I feel like he did the best he could with material and brought a subtly that I really responded to. At certain points in the film, he can be this omnipresent God character and then he can turn into a feeling human and then comic relief and finally back to detective spinning his web in order to catch this evil man. I am not very familiar with Edward G. Robinson performances, but I am always thinking of him in relation to the portrayal of him in Looney Tunes and Animanics with his huge fish lips. That might not be a good thing when watching him play a gangster or a detective, but I can’t help it.
The other great performance is by Orson Welles. He may not have liked this film or his performance very much, but you can’t tell by the way he inhabits the space that is his character. Although I never believed him to be a German, I believed that he was evil but only when he pulled down the mask. If I was Loretta Young, I would have fallen for him in a minute and truly believe he is what he says he is. He seemed so wholesome but couldn’t hide everything that boiled beneath the surface. I guess me saying that Orson Welles performance is really good is saying that Gone With the Wind was an epic, but it really was fun to watch him perform on-screen as such an evil man. Villains are really what he is born to portray.
I guess I should also mention that Orson Welles did direct this film as well. This film was his third feature and the only film that made a profit on its original release. You can see the exaggerated angles and deep shadows that populated Citizen Kane in this film as well, just to a muted degree. His direction is felt but it feels like someone trying to copy Welles and not Welles himself.
If you are interested in performances of the main characters and like formula films, then I would suggest watching this film. However if you are looking for anything dramatically different from everything else you have ever seen, look elsewhere.