Showing posts with label Deborah Kerr. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Deborah Kerr. Show all posts

Monday, May 05, 2008

I See a Dark Stranger (1946)

Posted by Tim (Mappin and Webb Ltd.)

Dir. Frank Launder

The Irish antipathy toward the British is perhaps renowned as much as their elephant like memories of English oppression in Ireland over the course of many centuries. During World War II Ireland (the southern Republic of Erie, not the Protestant British controlled north) was a neutral country. While there was no love for the Nazis from then President of the Irish republic Éamon de Valera, the republic’s declared neutrality during the war was founded in the historically acrimonious relationship between the two neighboring countries. Aside from these historical matters, the Irish have been known to enjoy a pint of stout at the pub where they also ritualistically spin tall tales and sing songs. At a public house (pub) in the small Irish town of Ballygarry, such pastimes are indulged and set the scene for one young woman’s adventure in the unconventional but highly entertaining thriller, I See a Dark Stranger.

Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr) is a 21 year old Irish lass who over the years working in the family pub, has been nourished with a steady diet of stories about brave militant Irish Nationalists fighting the English. According to one local blarney filled storyteller at the pub, her now deceased father and his former comrade Michael O'Callaghan practically held off the English army by themselves during the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion. Bridie knows these tales by heart, which also serves as a catalyst to stoke the fires of her white hot hatred for the British. Upon her 21st birthday Bridie makes good on her long ago hatched plan to leave Ballygarry for Dublin. Her intention is to meet Michael O’Callaghan and convince him that she is as full of conviction for the cause of an Ireland without an English presence, as her father once championed. Bridie’s ultimate goal is O’Callaghan serving as a conduit for her dream of joining the Irish Republican Army. O’Callaghan (Brenfi O’Rorke) is now a museum curator who has embraced diplomacy over violence in his twilight years. Bridie is crushed by her perception of O’Callaghan’s turncoat attitude toward the cause. She’s equally flummoxed as to where she can direct her untapped energy toward revenge on the British. But Bridie’s loathing of limeys has not gone unnoticed by a nefarious element with his eyes on the young woman’s potential.

Bridie has a difficult time keeping her sentiments about the British to herself and has a less than pleasant exchange on the train to Dublin with an English gentleman in her compartment named Miller (Raymond Huntley). Miller is in fact a Nazi spy and recognizes Bridie’s hatred for the British and comely looks as valuable assets to be exploited for his latest mission: Miller must attempt to free a captive Nazi agent Oscar Pryce (David Ward) who’s being held in England. Pryce has obtained and stashed the invaluable information of when and where D-Day is going to take place. Miller clandestinely recruits Bridie under the guise of his supposed allegiance to the I.R.A. for his actual Nazi agenda.

Bridie travels to the English village of Wynbridge with Miller where Pryce is being held. She gets a job at the local pub and under Miller’s guidance, uses her feminine wiles to extract information from the local British intelligence officers in charge of guarding the captive Nazi agent. It is also in this setting of Wynbridge where Miller orders Bridie to stymie a newly arrived British officer Lt. David Baynes (Trevor Howard). Miller believes Baynes is an undercover intelligence officer sent to Wynbridge for overseeing the transfer of the Nazi spy for interrogation. It is during this transfer where Miller plans to free the spy and gather his invaluable intelligence; with Baynes occupied by Bridie, snatching Pryce back and obtaining his information should prove easier. The plan goes awry and Pryce is killed by English M.P.s, but not before telling Miller where a small notebook containing the D-Day intelligence is hidden on the British Isle of Man. Miller is also shot in the fracas and bleeding profusely, but he eludes the British military and returns under cover of night to Bridie. His final dying action is bestowing his mission upon Bridie; the paramount task of getting the information of the notebook’s whereabouts to German intelligence. If she succeeds, Bridie will unknowingly render the Allied invasion impotent by eliminating the element of surprise, which will subsequently translate into heavy Allied fatalities.

Bridie accepts Miller’s mission for her but does so unaware she is still a Nazi pawn. Bridie believes all the espionage she’s embroiled in is for sabotaging the British foothold in Ireland, not potentially cutting off the allied invasion at the knees. Lt. Baynes meanwhile has fallen hard for Bridie and follows her to the Isle of Man. Baynes unwittingly helps Bridie along the way with her mission making him an accomplice by proxy. When Bridie finally recovers the notebook on the Isle of Man she realizes its true contents and the ramifications for the Allies if it comes into possession by the Nazis. Both she and Baynes are caught in the dilemma of having British intelligence pursuing them for helping the Nazis and having Nazi agents after them for the D-Day notebook. It’s an extremely sticky situation that exponentially increases the tension for the two protagonists and pleasure for the viewer.

I See a Dark Stranger is not what many would consider a traditional film noir. The script, by writers Sidney Gilliat and Wolfgang Wilhelm, seemingly contains many film genres: spy thriller, comedy, action, and suspense. The elements of film noir are well represented here however. Firstly the film looks fantastic as director Frank Launder keeps much of the film shrouded in wonderfully shot chiaroscuro lighting. It’s a noticeably welcome departure from what noir fans are used to seeing with the same noir lighting techniques applied in unconventional settings of British pubs, cramped rustic quarters and village streets. The camera work and editing are also noteworthy, especially in a wonderfully harrowing (and humorous) scene in a train compartment where Bridie must make contact with a fellow spy while not knowing which person in the compartment is the one she’s looking for. Another kudos worthy scene is Bridie disposing of Miller’s body under the ruse of giving “Grandpa”, the owner of the pub where she’s working undercover in Wynbridge England, his evening constitutional. It’s during these constitutionals which she pushes him around town in his wheelchair once a night for some fresh air. Trying to transport Miller’s corpse disguised as Grandpa to the town’s cliff side (where she can dump his body unnoticed) has its own set of problems for Bridie to contend with. These include being hit on by the local blokes, chatted up by a Bobby, and all the while maneuvering Miller’s body in the wheelchair through the town’s congested foot traffic. The scene’s conclusion is revisited in a stylishly terse flashback later in the film that fits surprisingly well in its non-linear fashion. In keeping with integral noir elements is the pervasive sense of dread Bridie and Baynes experience through much of the film. Not only is the viewer’s awareness of Bridie being manipulated and hoping that she will see her error compound the sense of dread, but she and Baynes are being chased by British intelligence and the Nazis as well. Danger seems to be coming at them from every angle leaving the viewer exasperated as to what fate they will encounter and from whom.

What sets this film apart from others of the time is Launder’s clever playfulness with cultural stereotypes, perceived histories and political ideologies. Launder skillfully gives his characters their latent set of opposing aforementioned beliefs, and lets the impact between them (especially between Bridie and Baynes) not only add depth to the script, but also propel the narrative in a unique and refreshing manner. Through these character collisions, the depth in the persona of Bridie Quilty really shines. Right before Miller’s recruitment of her, Bridie sits across from him on the train to Dublin at the beginning of the film. Her thoughts in a voice-over reveal she thinks Miller looks like a nice, well kempt, kind gentleman. She then notices the ID tag on his suitcase says “Miller.” Her goodhearted thoughts change quickly as she thinks to herself, “Miller, that can’t be an Irish name. He’s English!...I might have known. Will you look at the cruel set of his jaw, you could mistake him for Cromwell” (referring to 17th century British military and political leader Oliver Cromwell for whom the Irish hold the utmost contempt.) Through this type of scripted humor and pure acting talent, Deborah Kerr does a marvelous job of pulling off the character that in less adroit hands could have easily disintegrated into a one-dimensional trite stereotype. I found Trevor Howard’s Lt. David Baynes initially annoying as the typical stiff upper lip, King and county first type character. However, Launder uses this stereotype (and Howard’s acting chops to nail it) as a dramatic contrast and comedic foil to Kerr’s fiery Bridie Quilty. The rest of the cast are great, especially the performances by Raymond Huntley as Miller and Gary Marsh as the Isle of Man’s incompetent and womanizing Captain Goodhusband.

Where the film shows weakness derives from the occasional shifts between the dramatic and comedic modes. During the majority of the film Launder pulls off the mix nicely, but in a few places the comedy seems unsuitable. The film’s ending of fisticuffs between Nazi agents and Baynes is directed with a heavy slapstick hand that seems too incongruous with the rest of the film’s skillful balance between the movie’s suspenseful majorities, occasionally punctuated with comedy.

The story has nice complexities that work for it, but conversely it’s slightly confusing in a few minor aspects as I felt a second viewing was requisite to fully grasp it all. With that said, the intricacy and unconventionality of the script are its greatest assets. Director Launder and writer Sidney Gilliat co-wrote the script for arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest British film The Lady Vanishes (1938). Their filmmaking pedigrees are only buttressed by the collaboration on I See a Dark Stranger, as it stands up over time as a unique thriller. The film will keep the viewer invested in its masterful story to which even the most cantankerous fable telling, blarney filled Irishman would no doubt raise a pint in approval.