See a Dark Stranger is remembered as the film that introduced Deborah Kerr to the United States, paving the way for many memorable performances in the years that followed. Kerr is indeed splendid in Stranger, and it's no wonder that she made the critics sit up and take notice, for the film gives her a chance to really strut her stuff and show what she is made of. There are plenty of dramatic scenes, of course, that require her to be fiery or indignant or noble; but there are also scenes that require her to demonstrate her technique at keeping or building suspense, at expressing romance, even at playing comedy. Kerr delivers on all counts. She's well matched by the deft, effortless yet affecting performance of Trevor Howard, who knows exactly how to play his scenes so that he doesn't detract from Kerr yet still makes a very definite impression. The supporting cast is also first rate, and there's some delicious dialogue throughout.
Finely crafted espionage thriller in which a feisty Irish girl travels to England to spy for the Germans, but falls in love with an Englishman. Launder and Gilliat’s cleverly plotted Mata Hari yarn is atmospheric and suspenseful with moments of pure slapstick humour during a funeral procession or the disposal of a corpse in a wheelchair. Despite being cruelly neglected perhaps due it’s light-hearted treatment of a politically sensitive subject, I See A Dark Stranger stands up well in comparison with Launder and Gilliat’s earlier scripted thrillers including The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Night Train to Munich (1940).
Set during the Second World War, Bridie (Deborah Kerr) is a strong-minded Irish girl raised to despise the British on the pub tales recounted by her staunchly Republican father. On her 21st birthday she decides to leave Ballygarry and take the train to Dublin and offer to help in the war against the British. On the train to Dublin she meets Miller (Raymond Huntley), a Nazi spy attempting to rescue an accomplice held in detention by the British. In Dublin, Bridie’s wish to join the IRA is greeted with no encouragement but Miller sees that she is an attractive decoy so takes her to the English town of Wynbridge Vale with him as part of the operation to spring Oscar Pryce (David Ward) from custody.
On the day of the breakout, Miller employs Bridie to distract British officer Lt. David Bayne (Trevor Howard) for the afternoon using her feminine wiles. When Miller and the escaped prisoner are killed, Bridie is told that a notebook containing D-Day plans for the Allied invasion is on the Isle of Wight. Realizing the full horrors of how many lives would be lost as a result of her deceit and espionage, Bridie sets off to find and destroy the notebook. Her ideals are further compromised when she begins to fall in love with Lt. Bayne.
Some notes on the politics of the time:
In the first two decades after the creation of the Irish Republic in 1921, Irish nationalism rarely featured on British cinema screens. This was initially due to censorship - the British Board of Film Censors banned the explicitly nationalistic Irish Destiny (Ireland, d. George Dewhurst, 1925), and a decade later The Dawn (Ireland/UK, d. Thomas Cooper, 1936) was only passed after cuts, while various Irish projects, such as a biopic of Sir Roger Casement, were vetoed at the script stage.
So the very existence of I See A Dark Stranger (d. Frank Launder, 1946) is somewhat surprising. Its central character Bridie Quilty, ironically played by English rose Deborah Kerr, is a passionate Irish nationalist, whose hatred of the British is such that after failing to join the IRA, she willingly agrees to become a spy for the Germans, in the process uncovering information that could wreck the D-Day landings if it were passed on.
The background is based on historical fact: although Ireland was technically neutral during the war, it was a natural home for anti-British activity. Although we're introduced early on to Michael O'Callaghan (Brefni O'Rourke), a former rebel turned respectable advocate of peaceful negotiation, it's clear from the context that not everyone felt that way.
Bridie retains our sympathy thanks to her na?vet? - her views are based largely on romantic fantasy, and throughout the film they're increasingly tested against reality and found wanting. This is especially true when she falls for British intelligence office David Bayne (Trevor Howard) and belatedly realises that the Brits aren't all bad - or at least not as bad as the Nazis. She does retain some principles, though, by refusing to stay in the Cromwell Arms.
Perhaps wisely, Launder and co-writer Sidney Gilliat treat this potentially inflammatory material at least partly as a comedy, with strong echoes of their script for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). The blend is relatively subtle in the first half, but the second teeters on the edge of farce with the introduction of bumbling bald policemen Goodhusband and Spanswick, spiritual cousins of the earlier film's Charters and Caldicott.
The film's relative box-office failure suggests audiences weren't ready for such a light-hearted treatment of very recent events, but it remains a fascinating and often startling piece of work that provides further evidence of how fluently Launder and Gilliat could package contemporary social and political comment as mainstream entertainment.
Deborah Kerr - Birdie Quilty
Trevor Howard - Lt. David Baynes
Raymond Huntley - Miller
Garry Marsh - Capt. Goodhusband
Tom Macauley - Lt. Spanswick
W.G. O'Gorrnan - Danny Quilty
Harry Webster - Uncle Joe
Liam Redmond - Timothy
Marie Ault - Mrs. O'Mara
Brefni O'Rourke - Michael O'Callaghan
Olga Lindo - Mrs. Edwards
Eddie Golden - Terence Delaney
David Ward - Oscar Pryce
Kathleen Boutall - Women on Train
Kenneth Buckley - RTO
Gerald Case - Col. Dennington
James Harcourt - Grandfather
Kathleen Harrison - Waitress
Michael Howard - Hawkins
Harry Hutchinson - Chief Mourner
Katie Johnson - Old Lady
John Salew - Man in Bookshop
Norman Shelley - Man in Straw Hat
Torin Thatcher - Policeman
David Tomlinson - Intelligence Officer
George Woodbridge - Steve