Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I See a Dark Stranger is an ambitious thriller from the Gilliat-Launder writing-directing
team, a light spy caper that emulates the top work of Powell-Pressberger and Carol Reed.
It's rather derivative, and has a paternalistic
anti-Irish smugness about it that dulls its impact, but the performances from young Deborah Kerr
and Trevor Howard are winning and fresh.
1944. Just turned 21 and inflamed by her late father's patriotic speeches, Bridie Quilty
(Deborah Kerr) goes to Dublin to join the IRA. There she's shocked to hear authentic Irish patriot
Michael O'Callaghan (Brefni O'Rorke) say that her homeland and England should stay at peace, and instead
is recruited to become an anti-British spy for German agent Miller (Raymond Huntley). Bridie
accompanies Miller incognito to a town in England, where they arrange for the escape of a key Axis
agent. Miller assigns Bridie to distract Lt. David Baynes (Trevor Howard), an officer in town
who might be from English Military Intelligence.
The key to I See a Dark Stranger is that it was made after the war, and not before. The
Powell-Pressburger films Contraband and The Spy in Black glow in retrospect because
of their understanding attitude toward the enemy, even though both pictures
were made in the pressures of wartime. Viewers who have seen the same duo's amazingly mature & transcendant
A Cantebury Tale will be struck by some superficial resemblances as well. This jaunty
thriller, produced safely after victory, has a wonderful heroine in Deborah Kerr.
Perhaps UK citizens would be more blasé about the Anti-Irish slights in I See a Dark
Stranger, but the digs
took Savant by surprise. Bridie Quilty (is a 'Q' name chosen for its closeness to Quisling?)'s
Irish town is full of stupid drunks, most of whom have tried to have their way with her. The
local swain is a dolt not worth her attention. Everyone but Bridie seems to know that her dad's tales
of fighting in the troubles of 1916-21 are a pack of lies, and she holds a ridiculously
exaggerated grudge against Cromwell, who she seems to think betrayed her country only a few
I See a Dark Stranger does criticize some English characters, mainly the two oafish,
womanizing 'intelligence men' on the Isle of Man, but it reserves a special ire for the Irish.
A distrustful, shameful floozie goes out with American soldiers. When we meet a bunch of random
Irishmen on a road, they turn out to be petty, incompetent smugglers. Bridie
Quilty is irredeemably
bigoted and prejudiced against anything English. It's a wonder Trevor Howard can stand being with
her, she's so obnoxious. Then, of course, when she bats those innocent, doe-like eyes...
Bridie is supposed to be a confused zealot to fit the needs of the story, but I See a Dark Stranger
makes sure that her misplaced patriotism is identified as worse than Germany's honest espionage.
The authentic 1921 Irish rebel she visits is a pacified, reasonable, and wise, yet working right
where the Brits would like him, in a museum. Anyone who sympathizes with underdogs will tend to side
a bit with Bridey (probably unfairly) when she protests that he's been emasculated by British rule.
Understanding details in the story requires knowing at least something of the history of
Irish-English conflict. The differences between the partitioned halves of Ireland during the war,
make Bridey's possible fates quite different, depending in which half she's arrested.
The story is an espionage chase that grows lighter as it goes along, especially with Trevor Howard's
pleasant arrival in the story. But along with the Nazi agent they cleverly spring from Army
custody, Bridie and Miller are wartime spies, plain and simple, and the tale's slapstick finish doesn't feel
quite right, considering the stakes. Bedsides the threat to the success of D-Day, Bridie's 'adventures'
result in a British soldier being seriously shot. Even if she does eventually realize that Irish
being killed along with Brits on D-Day, Bridie is a bonafide traitor, addle-brained or not.
I See a Dark Stranger is amusing all the way through, but it's a moral mishmosh that would
seem to come from a fairly priggish sensibility. Politically, the message is that anyone who would
question British rule and superiority, is either
a deluded idiot, a traitor, or both. Dated story conventions neutralize Bridie Quilty's offenses,
by having her wed and bedded (owned and possessed) by a loyal British soldier.
Home Vision Entertainment's welcome releases are filling in the gaps in our appreciation of
post-war English film treasures. If they were released at all, many of these British-themed pictures
were retitled and cut down in the States. The major example is
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Savant hopes that can't-see thrillers like Counterblast and Seven Days to Noon
eventually come out as well. In I See a Dark Stranger
we get a good look at mid-range British notables like David Tomlinson and Albert Sharpe (later Darby of
Darby O'Gill and the Little People), Raymond Huntley and Torin Thatcher. Genre fans will
want to check out George Woodbridge (various Hammer films), and look for Patricia Laffan
(Quo Vadis?, Devil Girl From Mars) among the female bits.
Once again, HVe presents a rare (for here in America) English film in an almost perfect presentation.
The B&W print is immaculate, and the soundtrack mercifully clear for those of us trying to decipher
the mumbled argot. The amusingly hokey and misleading trailer presents Kerr as a ruthless mankiller.
It looks as if it were made for a later reissue of the film, because it mentions Deborah Kerr (Rhymes
with Star!)'s success at M.G.M.
Richard Maynard's liner notes overstate the film's charm but correctly tag Deborah Kerr as the
central attraction and a major talent. The package design, highlighting Kerr on a background of green,
is simple and attention-getting.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I See a Dark Stranger rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 14, 2003
1. As writers only, Launder and Gilliat had considerable success earlier
with these kinds of films, on Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, and Reed's Night Train to
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson