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I See A Dark Stranger (1946)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of I See A Dark Stranger (1946)
35mm, black and white, 112 mins
DirectorFrank Launder
Production CompanyIndividual Pictures
Screenplay byFrank Launder, Sidney Gilliat, Wolfgang Wilhelm
Director of PhotographyWilkie Cooper
MusicWilliam Alwyn

Cast: Deborah Kerr (Bridie Quilty); Trevor Howard (Lt David Bayne); Raymond Huntley (Miller); Liam Redmond (Uncle Timothy); Michael Howard (Hawkins)

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Towards the end of World War II, a passionately patriotic Irishwoman is used as a spy by the Germans (who are seen as less objectionable than the hated British), but repents in time to prevent them finding out about the D-Day landings.

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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 naïveté - 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.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Youthful ambition (4:54)
2. The hated Cromwell (2:03)
3. Spying by train (5:00)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Gentle Gunman, The (1952)
Topical Budget 247-1: Trial of Casement (1916)
Two Thousand Women (1944)
Waterloo Road (1944)
Cooper, Wilkie (1911-2001)
Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)
Howard, Trevor (1913-1988)
Johnson, Katie (1878-1957)
Jones, Peter (1920-2000)
Kerr, Deborah (1921-2007)
Launder, Frank (1906-1997)
Tomlinson, David (1917-2000)
Launder and Gilliat