Frank Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger, which premiered in the United Kingdom on July 4, 1946, is half a loaf of noir slathered with generous helpings of romance and comedy. It’s a very enjoyable picture that’s notable as a star vehicle for the lovely Deborah Kerr before she was well-known in Hollywood.
The opening of the film is pure noir. Shadows fall heavily on the quiet nighttime streets of a little town with signs all about in French. A panicked man rushes through the town, searching for something. Suddenly there’s a shot of something that doesn’t quite fit, and the narrator’s voice appears on the soundtrack. “An Isle of Man signpost outside a French town,” he says. “That’s odd. But we’ve started this tale at the wrong moment.”
He goes on to tell us that this is really the story of Bridie Quilty (Kerr), and we see the young woman in the pub where she works as she eavesdrops on her father’s boozy tales of the Irish Revolution, rapt, even mouthing the words of his story at one point. Bridie hates the English and the memory of Oliver Cromwell as much as the most hardened member of the I.R.A. does, and wants nothing more than to join the group when she reaches the age of majority, just like her father did. The film treats her fervor lightly, however, and right off the bat the viewer knows that this coming-of-age story will contain a fair measure of disillusionment for its protagonist. But not, of course, before she gets in over her head.
As soon as Bridie turns 21, she heads for Dublin to make contact with a former compatriot of her father, a man named Michael O’Callaghan (Brefni O’Rorke). Far from the fearsome soldier she expected, O’Callaghan is a mild-mannered curator of a museum who doesn’t seem to mind seeing a large painting of Cromwell every day and feels that the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 that partitioned the country were fair enough, which boggles Bridie’s mind. More significantly, he seems to have never heard of her father, which should raise a red flag, but doesn’t, since Bridie is as bull-headed as she is patriotic.
Undeterred by her experience in the museum, Bridie looks for resistance where she can find it, and falls in with a man named Miller (Raymond Huntley). He appears at first glance to be a rumpled Englishman, but Bridie learns that he’s a spy working against the English, so she goes to work for him without a second thought.
Bridie is blithely unaware of politics outside of Ireland and the U.K., and the film is clever enough to share her point of view for some time. Astute viewers, of course, will immediately be able to suss out exactly which nation Miller is spying for, but it’s not directly stated for awhile. As far as Bridie’s concerned, the enemy of her enemy is her friend. After hearing how much Bridie hates every last Englishman, Miller says to her, “For a subject of a neutral country, aren’t you being a little belligerent?” Bridie responds, “There’s nothing belligerent about it. It’s entirely a question of which side I’m neutral on.”
As I said, I See a Dark Stranger is a mixture of noir and comedy. It’s heavier on the comedy than it is on the thrills, especially toward the end, but for the first half, there are some sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in any other espionage potboiler, such as the scene in which Bridie has to dispose of a corpse, and comes up with the ingenious notion of putting the body in a wheelchair and pushing it through town as though she’s just taking an old man for a walk (she’s really heading for the cliffs overlooking the ocean). It’s never very serious, though, and the film is generally more interested in humorous situations and amusing characterizations than it is in plot points.
Kerr is fantastic, and carries the picture with ease. Trevor Howard is great, too. He plays Lt. David Baynes, a Brit who becomes infatuated with Bridie and realizes too late the amount of trouble she’s in. There are also two very funny caricatures of stiff upper-lipped British policemen, Capt. Goodhusband (Garry Marsh) and Lt. Spanswick (Tom Macaulay) who may very well have served as the inspiration for Hergé’s comic characters Dupont et Dupond (Thomson and Thompson in English translation), two detectives who are indistinguishable from each other. Spanswick and Goodhusband are both bald, have neat little black mustaches, and say things like “Cheerio, old boy.” By the end of the picture, however, they’re allowed to grow out of their stereotyped roles, are fairly easy to tell apart, and even get a few intentionally funny lines, such as when Spanswick says to a hotel manager who is afraid that German prisoners of war may have escaped from the nearby internment camp to hide out in her hotel, “If the food I’ve had here is anything to go by, they’re more likely to escape from the hotel and beat it for the internment camp.”