How My Blog Got Its Name: I See A Dark Stranger

March 31, 2014 / June 2, 2014

This entry, one of my first on this blog, has been slightly modified and republished to take part in Movies, Silently's Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Spies, running from June 1-3, 2014. Please visit Movies, Silently to read a variety of great spy pieces, and thanks to Fritzi for hosting this event. 

 

I hate when people ask me to list my favorite movies. Top 3, 5, or 10 - it always changes, and honestly, my picks mainly depend on what words I can remember that day. Some films always seem to make the cut: The Thin Man. Gun Crazy. The Innocents. If we’re adding recent movies into the mix, The Proposal is totally included (I didn’t say my favorites had to be good. Sandra Bullock + Ryan Reynolds forever).

 

Another film I usually mention is unfamiliar to most: I See A Dark Stranger, released as The Adventuress in the US. When one asks what the movie is about (or even if they don't), I'm always happy to provide a brief overview: I See a Dark Stranger is a British movie made in 1946 starring Scottish actress Deborah Kerr as a naïve Irish girl who grew up hating the British so much that she accidently becomes a Nazi spy during WWII.

 

In case you were wondering, yes, it is a comedy.

Wow. One year after WWII ends (one year before, in the movie) and the future Anna Leonowens is joining the Nazis. Inadvertently, of course, and late in the war, but nevertheless. Kerr played a variety of roles over her career, from nuns (Black Narcissus and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) and shy spinsters (Separate Tables and The Night of the Iguana) to adulteresses (From Here to Eternity and The End of the Affair) and alcoholics (Edward, My Son) and beyond. Her character here, Bridie Quilty, is in a category all her own – she’s extremely passionate and headstrong yet hilariously misinformed about the world at large. The Irish lass is determined to go to war with England when the Brits have their own little skirmish going on with the Germans - no biggie, she insists: "That's no reason why we shouldn't carry on our own private war that's been going on for 700 years!"

 

Welcome to the mind of Bridie Quilty. Get ready for a wild ride.

Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr) getting an Irish education.

Bridie's naivety takes her, on her 21st birthday, from her small Irish town where she's memorialized her storyteller father's great (tall)tales of fighting for Irish independence to the bustling metropolis of Dublin to join the IRA. When that (obviously) doesn't work out, she's picked up in a book store by a German spy; her hatred of the English is already driving her into enemy arms, evidenced by her purchase of a German language book, so she's an understandable choice.

Spies being spies.

From there, her misguided attempts to fight for her country whisk Bridie on tasks across England and the Isle of Man to assist in the recovery and delivery of important information to the Germans. Of course, things inevitably go wrong and Bridie is forced to complete the mission by herself while she navigates the sea of eccentric characters that pass (and sometimes get in) her way. And oh, there's a clueless British officer, Lt. David Baynes (Trevor Howard), who's latched onto her, throwing one more wrench into her burgeoning career as a defender of Éire, aka Nazi spy.

Shadow = bad guy.

The first time I watched I See a Dark Stranger I was amazed by the fact it was released in 1946 - July 4 in the UK and April 3, 1947 in the US, to be exact . It's hard not to view this movie, considering the subject matter, within the timeline of late and post WWII events, particularly as they had to do with the Germans and Nazis. With that in mind, when you consider the comical liberties taken in the film the whole production sounds kind of ballsy (which is one reason why I love it). Though D-Day occurred a full two years before the film's release, it took almost another year, until April-May 1945, for the hostilities to end in Europe. Kerr biographer Michelangelo Capua noted that weeks later, in the summer of 1945, I See a Dark Stranger began filming in Ireland and wrapped at Denham Studios near London that September. It's not clear when the script came to fruition, but I assume that it was before the Germans surrendered. Interestingly, the movie wouldn't be released in England for nearly a year, and during that time, the atrocities of the Nazis were on world display at the Nuremberg Trials, which began at the end of 1945 and continued throughout 1946 (31-32).

 

Quick history lesson aside, one would think there may be some sensitivity to any mention of the Nazis so soon after the war and Trials. However, despite the events, mixed reviews, and a nearly 16 minute cut requested by the American distributor which left a few plot holes, The Adventuress ran for three months at the Victoria Theater in Times Square, in addition to several long runs in other major cities. Kerr, still a newbie in the industry, particularly in America, won the New York Film Critics Circle Awards for her performance in this film and Black Narcissus (32). Not too shabby!

 

Though not a massive hit, Capua wrote that writer/director Frank Launder recalled the film "more than recovered its production cost from the box office in the States" (32). One reason for I See a Dark Stranger's relative popularity could simply be that the movie's a riotously good time, anchored by the spy storyline yet propelled by the comedy, with a little romance thrown in for good measure. Really, what's not to love? The spies, maybe, you say? Well, screenwriters Launder and Sidney Gilliat smartly downplayed any real Nazi transgressions occurring as a result of Bridie's actions, which prevent her from crossing over into villain territory; in fact, the few spies we see in the film are rarely, if ever, referred to as Nazis, and their loathsomeness is slyly represented in physical means (one sports an evil-looking facial scar) and morbid psychological terms (a not-yet-dead spy plans his own disposal) rather than actions.

Yup, he's a bad guy for sure.

Furthermore, the intent of Bridie's dealings is always clearly, and hilariously, anti-British as opposed to pro-Nazi, and the laughs tend to emanate more from her surroundings and misplaced hatred and aggression, as evident when she mentally checks out her compartment-mate/future spy boss on the train to Dublin:

 

His hair is going gray, but it looks very nice the way he has it brushed. He's a faraway look in his eyes - a poet maybe. No, he's much too clean. And he puts his trousers under the mattress like Terence Delaney. Hasn't he lovely nails? He's a gentleman, I think. I don't like being alone with a strange man at this time of night - he doesn't look that sort of man, of course, but how can you tell? Mr. McGee didn't look that sort of man and Mr. Cloggerty was a terrible shock to me. Hmm, he's a traveler from abroad. Miller. That can't be an Irish name. He's an Englishman! Of all the compartments on this train, I have to get in one with an Englishman. I might have known it! Will you look at the cruel set of his jaw - you could mistake him for Cromwell. If he speaks to me, I shall lose me temper. I shall tell him he looks like Cromwell. If he speaks to me...

 

 

Bridie on the train:

Interested...

...he's kind of cute...

Miller?

Never mind.

I particularly love how Bridie's mind oscillates: she's totally checking him out one moment, then the next she immediately hates him, due solely to his surname, and at the last second, despite it all, she's got one last pang of womanly hope - for him just to notice her. These humorous commentaries, which always perfectly match word for word with Bridie's facial expressions, not only reveal her comedic inner musings (mostly regarding the British at the beginning) but also serve as a portal to her conscience as she starts having mental matches about what exactly she's gotten herself into; Bridie's our heroine, but it takes her a while to finally realize that joining the Nazis might not have been the best way to fight on behalf of her (neutral) country.

 

I've got to hand it to Launder and Gilliat. They did an excellent job seamlessly combining the on-your-toes spy segments with that delicious, droll comedy that the British do best. The film closely resembles some of Hitchcock's English works of the mid-late 1930s, such as The Lady Vanishes (which Launder and Gilliat wrote) and The Thirty-Nine Steps, in terms of the action, humor, camera angles, and suspense techniques employed.

Bridie's doing something in this scene that isn't 100% legal.

Several times in the film, our protagonist finds herself in Hitchcockian nail-biting, 'this is the end' situations, but fear not! In each case, the tension is relieved with comedic bits that may have read rather trite on paper but perform well visually, allowing Bridie to narrowly and conveniently escape capture once again.

Is she caught?

The thriller-comedy backdrop also presents an amusing environment for Bridie and the terrific supporting cast to move through. Launder and Gilliat paid much attention to secondary and even passing characters, from the suspicious looking lady who is actually doing eye exercises on the train to the extremely bored/partly incompetent Wynbridge police officers ("It's not what you're doing in the army that counts, it's what you're noticed doing") to the old grandfather Bridie takes for a daily airing at the guesthouse she works in while spying for Miller.

Grandpa didn't get his daily airing. Not happy.

The last character has a particularly humorous connection with a scene that requires Bridie to dispose of a body, which, of course, doesn't proceed smoothly due, once again, to people who coincidently cross her path.

It should be easy to fly under the radar with all these people around, right?

While Bridie is clearly rather clueless when it comes to the world outside her own, one thing she's surprisingly experienced and confident in is her dealings with men, which just so happens to account for most of the people she comes in contact with. In a telling scene early on, all the townsmen express worry as she prepares to leave her home behind, but she pointedly tells each one that they know she can take care of herself. Wink wink. Given her confidence in the arena, it's particularly amusing when she objects to using her charms against her will when Miller asks her to detain Baynes while he and his partners attempt to break a prisoner out of jail. Baynes is English, which means Bridie automatically loathes him, so why does she have to do it? Well, unfortunately the "beautiful decoy is the only thing that hasn't been mechanized," Miller explains, so into her lap the assignment falls. Bridie's attempt at desperately trying to fight off her hatred of the British while she has to flirt with Baynes (who just so happens to be writing a paper on Cromwell, Bridie's personal nemesis, which is a running gag) is a riot, and Kerr's performance amusingly oscillates between innocence and no nonsense; one minute she wants to bite his head off and the next she's pleading with him to stay.

This is the tough part of being a spy: flirting with the enemy.

Baynes is sufficiently baffled (but for some reason undaunted) by Bridie's hot and cold attitude - we know the reasoning behind her actions but he doesn't, and yet, he sticks around! Even when she keeps telling him to go away! What a guy! Howard, performing in one of his first films, makes Baynes endearingly persistent and tolerant where Kerr's Bridie is not. Two more dissimilar people couldn't get together if they tried; clearly, their relationship won't be a smooth one, but it will guarantee some laughs.

 

As the story progresses, the stakes get inevitably higher. Spies get caught, Bridie finds herself on her own, Baynes keeps showing up, and oh, she's been identified, which means the cops are hot on her trail (their ineptitude slows things down a bit, but still).

With these cops on the case, Bridie's sure to have a nice head start.

It's kind of weird that Bridie remains relatively unfazed in the midst of everything, and Kerr's portrayal of the character deftly balances her blissful ignorance and headstrong naïveté with the severity of the incidents occurring around her. Agents on her team are getting caught or even killed left and right, and though Bridie shows a bit of trepidation, ultimately she works around it - quite impressive for a first time spy!

What Bridie and the spies are up against.

The slow but steady humorous build up erupts in the final scenes, as full on slapstick comedy ensues during what might or might not be a funeral procession and later in a small, cramped bathroom, complete with a full tub of water just asking for someone to fall in to. (Spoiler alert: someone does).

Chaos!

Given that the movie is one Deborah Kerr's early, pre-Hollywood fame flicks, I See a Dark Stranger is not widely remembered today, which is a shame, because it's a gem of a film filled with hilarious situations, witty dialogue, and colorful characters, and regardless of the existence of some spies and tense moments, the movie has a rather fun energy about it. Though there have always been some scenes that have confused me a bit (one prisoner swap sequence in particular), I've never minded it - each viewing has been like picking up pieces of a vibrant, hilarious puzzle, and one day I will get them all! The action runs nonstop well into the final act and the jokes continue all the way to the last frame, when Bridie storms out of the hotel she's staying in, The Cromwell Arms, and yells: "How dare you do a thing like this to me! I won't stop in this place, no I won't! Not if the sky itself was to fall on top of me head. I won't stop in it!"

You can take the girl out of Ireland but you can't take the Irish* out of the girl.

How to join the war effort:

I See a Dark Stranger was released on DVD in 2012 and is available for purchase, but strangely, it doesn't seem to be available in England. Just kidding. All are invited and encouraged to observe Bridie's hilariously short lived stint as a wartime spy.

 

Note: The biography of Deborah Kerr I cited, Deborah Kerr: A Biography, was a hard back version. Consequently, the citations may be different than the paperback edition.

 

*Specifically Cromwell haters

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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