One of the Britnoir films of the late 1940′s, “I See a Dark Stranger” is one of intrigue, espionage, feminism, and romance the main character of the film, portrayed by Deborah Kerr, finds herself involved with but feels she could have done without the romance part. As Bridie Quilty, she is able to successfully communicate the plot from her view, sometimes through the power of thought alone.
Ireland was no longer under the republican commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell when Bridie Quilty decides to become a patriot for her nation one she reaches legal age. Most 21 year-old young ladies of her time would be more interested in finding a suitor and honing their homemaking arts, but Bridie is an early feminist in that she wants to join the Irish Republican Army to further Ireland’s cause, long after the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. As the narrator says in the opening of the film, “It’s the story of a very strange character named Bridie Quilty”, and a strange story it is indeed. Operating on the political theory of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Bridie finds herself in the unusual circumstance of either aiding that friend, or deliver a crippling blow to their wartime plans.
The opening scene shows a man standing in the Rue de la Gare during the night hours, running along several more streets until he gets shot after running down a flight of stairs. The man, a spy, was on his way to the Isle of Man, where he was to be a liaison for top secret information that would help the German cause during World War 2, but fails. The Isle of Man is the final destination of Bridie Quilty in her quest for patriotic justice, and what brings her there are mysterious circumstances that even she herself cannot understand at times.
Bridie’s story begins in 1937 at Power’s Whisky pub in a small village in western Ireland. A group of men inside entertain each other with stories of the Irish Revolution when 14 year-old Bridie overhears them. Having a father who fought for the independence of Ireland, she has not forgotten the oppression of Ireland by England and wants to join the IRA, even though Ireland and England are no longer at war with each other. She makes a promise to herself, that once she turns 21, she will be able to join the movement for Irish freedom. She finally gets her wish in 1944 on her birthday where her family and friends gather around her, telling them of her wishes to travel all the way to Dublin. Bridie is a self assured woman who has no fear of traveling alone by herself at a time when women rarely traveled abroad without a husband or male relative for protection. Surrounded by her relatives, she asks that her Uncle Timothy (Liam Redmond) take her to the train station and see her off on her trip to Dublin. They leave in a horse drawn carriage for the train station when her adventure first begins. In one shadowy car of the train, Bridie is seated across from a man whose looks make him appear to be a gentleman until she sees his luggage, which bears the label of his name. J. Miller (Raymond Huntley). Bridie no longer considers this man a gentleman when she concludes his name is British, having been raised to dislike the British. Miller’s face reminds her of Cromwell, and takes an even greater disdain for him when he nonchalantly picks up a copy of “The Economist” and starts to read it. Miller is not British but instead is a Nazi spy who eventually recruits Bridie into doing work that is not just anti-British but anti-Irish, too. This is just one of many points throughout the movie where Bridie’s thoughts become audible and she gets the feeling anyone in her presence can hear them, too. But this time she is mistaken, and decides to visit someone her father knew, who now works at a gallery in Dublin.
When Bridie gets off the train in Dublin, she makes a point of going to the Redmond Portrait Gallery to see Michael O’Callaghan (Brefni O’Rorke), a man who fought beside her father Daniel Quilty during the Irish Revolution. The way she speaks to him is as if he is an old friend of the family, when he hardly knows who she is, since she was born long after the War of Independence ended in 1921. Bridie wants O’Callaghan to help her get into the IRA but he refuses, saying that Ireland is no longer at war with England. But that does not stop Bridie from exacting justice for a perceived misdeed on Cromwell’s part long ago. Bridie’s trip down the rabbit trail does not leave her discouraged; however, as she is eventually recruited by Miller after she enters a bookstore where he holds a conversation with another German spy (John Salew) on the opposite side of a bookcase. The second spy asks Miller if he is familiar with the name Roger Pryce (David Ward), who is in possession of very valuable information for the German cause. Pryce however is in prison where he must be set free to disseminate the wanted information.
It is Bridie’s mentioning of her interest in books on the Germans that initially attracts Miller’s attention which encourages him to follow her out of the store and eventually to the inn where she is staying. Soon after Bridie leaves the bookstore, a camera shot of a statue of Oliver Cromwell is shown, with someone pouring a large can of whitewash over its head. It is not difficult to deduct who is doing this act, for there is only one figure in the movie thus far who has declared Cromwell to be an enemy. Immediately after that, a city employee starts washing off the whitewash as a group of bystanders start to gather. One of the bystanders comments to another, “Nobody ever took any interest in him except the seagulls.” But in this case the seagulls do not have a personal vendetta against Oliver Cromwell the way Bridie Quilty does.
Bridie meets a British soldier while she works at a pub, showing Lt. David Baynes (Trevor Howard) to a room upstairs where is is staying for a brief period. Soon she becomes personally involved with him, as Miller continues to move in on her and recruit her for working for the Nazis. Miller even goes so far as to tell her that Baynes is a dangerous man, even she discovers he isn’t, if only to further discredit the British.
Back in Dublin, Pryce is brought out by the police where he is initially misidentified, then escapes in a police van with Miller. The police follow him; engage in a shootout in a tunnel when the cars travel through, as Pryce escapes them. Miller is shot but manages to escape and return to Bridie’s room at the inn. He tells her that if he dies, she is to eliminate his body over a cliff and into the ocean. Miller does die that evening, and Bridie takes his body, wraps it up in a wheelchair, and takes him outside. At the same time, Bridie also has to pretend that she is taking her grandfather (James Harcourt) out for some air as she does every night. Only this time, her grandfather is asleep at home and Bridie quietly wheels the dead Miller along the streets, knowing she has to get rid of his body discreetly without anyone seeing her. When she runs into a cad who tries to make time with her, a policeman (Torin Thatcher) shows up to chase him away and tells her, “Between you and me he’s been looking a bit seedy lately. I don’t think he’ll be with us much longer.” The attempt at dark humor stands well here, as the policeman stops traffic to allow her to cross the road and head towards the nearest cliff. Back in her room at the inn, Bridie tries to fall asleep. The creaking sign of “The George” inn, the metronome, and piano playing all grate on her nerves, causing her to stay awake longer than she planned.
Bridie starts to feel paranoia setting in: reading a copy of the daily newspaper with the headlines “Suspected German Spy Shot”, an incident on the train when an elderly woman is asked by two policemen to get off, and Baynes’ continual threats to have her arrested for espionage. Baynes confesses to Bridie that he loves her, and his actions prove it, since he aids in her continued evasion from the authorities. Bridie leaves Baynes to go to the Isle of Man to retrieve the secret information the Germans initially sought, she enters a courthouse and per the instructions that she remembers, slips her hand in the torn seam of a seat on the balcony and retrieves a black book containing details that would help the Germans launch an attack on England and Ireland. Yet she takes this book home and throws it into a lit fireplace, feeling as if she did the right thing. Meanwhile two policemen, Captain Goodhusband (Garry Marsh) and Lieutenant Spanswick (Tom Macauley) are in pursuit of her too, hoping to catch and arraign her on espionage charges. Bridie manages to avoid being arrested by them even though she forges her identity card; changing it from Bridie Quilty to Mrs. David Baynes (she is not yet married to David even though he loves her and wants to marry her). While Baynes has no qualms about staying at an inn bearing the Cromwell name, Bridie does, refusing to join him and leaves, finally returning to her family back in Ireland.
Released in the United States as “The Adventuress”, Deborah Kerr is a firecracker in “I See A Dark Stranger”, hardly being a pushover in the presence of Howard, and more than helpful to the German spies, who are intent on destroying not just England but Ireland too. She was only 24 when she made this, a stunning beauty which caught the eyes of Hollywood and garnered her a New York Film Critics Circle Award for her performance as best actress. Kerr even outshines Howard, who pulls off an excellent performance as a British soldier during World War 2 who tries to understand Kerr’s character, who clearly has deeply held grudges against the British. The supporting cast of Raymond Huntley, Michael Howard, Liam Redmond, Olga Lindo, and Brefni O’Rorke provide solid acting to the fast paced plot. Directed and written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who also wrote Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”, they successfully recreate the same type of suspenseful atmosphere in “I See A Dark Stranger”, a movie that is sure to please any fan of film noir or Britnoir.