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I See a Dark Stranger

I See a Dark Stranger
Home Vision Entertainment
1946 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 98 112 min. / The Adventuress / Street Date January 21, 2003 / $19.95
Starring Deborah Kerr, Trevor Howard, Raymond Huntley, Liam Redmond, Brefni O'Rorke, David Tomlinson, Torin Thatcher, George Woodbridge, Albert Sharpe
Cinematography Wilkie Cooper
Production Designer David Rawnsley
Art Direction Norman Arnold
Film Editor Thelma Myers
Original Music William Alwyn
Written by Sidney Gilliat, Wolfgang Wilhelm, Liam Redmond and Frank Launder
Directed by Frank Launder

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.  1 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 generations before.

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 lads will 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:
Movie: Good-
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
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 Munich.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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