Friday, September 30, 2011

Darling Deborah Blogathon: The Search for Bridie Quilty

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Darling Deborah (Kerr) Blogathon, which is being hosted today by Sophie at Waitin’ on a Sunny Day in honor of the actress’ 90th birthday (Deborah’s, not Sophie’s).  For a list of the blogathon’s other participants, mosey on over here.

Lovely Irish colleen Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr) sets out for Dublin on the occasion of her 21st birthday in 1944 and obtains an audience with Michael O’Callaghan (Brefni O’Rorke), who works at an art gallery in the city.  O’Callaghan has never met Bridie, but she is well acquainted with him…having heard her father Danny’s stories about how the two fought side by side against the British in the struggle for Ireland’s independence in 1916.  Her head filled with his tales of heroism (that some of the people in her hometown hint possess a bit more blarney than usual), Bridie wants to join the Irish Republican Army and asks O’Callaghan for his help…but with maturity and age, O’Callaghan is no longer fighting that fight (the War of Independence ended in 1921) and as such refuses her request, leaving her disillusioned and disappointed.

Bridie’s salvation comes in the form of a chance meeting with a man named Miller (Raymond Huntley) in a book shop…though it isn’t their first meet-up; they were first introduced to one another during her train trip to Dublin.  Miller is mistaken by Bridie to be an Englishman (and consequently her sworn enemy) but he is actually a Nazi spy, and his presence at the book shop is to meet with another confederate to discuss the recent capture of a third Nazi agent, Oscar Pryce (David Ward)…who is being held by the British.  Pryce possesses information vital to the German cause and Miller’s assignment is to institute a jail break so that will free Pryce and allow him to reveal to the Germans all that he knows.  Miller enlists Bridie’s help by having her get work in a pub in the nearby town of Wynbridge Vale, where she romances a soldier or two in order to get the skinny on Pryce’s situation and the logistics of when he will be moved.  When a young British Army lieutenant named David Baynes (Trevor Howard) arrives in town, Miller identifies him as a counterintelligence officer and has Bridie keep him occupied so that he won’t interfere with Pryce’s escape.

Things do not go smoothly in Pryce’s bid for freedom, however.  Miller breaks his fellow spy out of jail but in a shootout with soldiers in a tunnel, Pryce is recaptured and a wounded Miller barely makes it back to the pub, where he hides out in Bridie’s room.  Upon her arrival, he informs her that he hasn’t long to live and that she must carry out a set of instructions that will take her to the Isle of Man to obtain a notebook belonging to Pryce containing secrets important to German intelligence.  Bridie’s mission is compromised by Baynes, who takes off after her in hot romantic pursuit…and when Bridie does get to the notebook, she finds that its contents could very well change the direction of the war…and not for the better as far as her countrymen are concerned.

The opening credits of I See a Dark Stranger (1946) identify the film as being written (with Wolfgang Wilhelm) and produced by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, the two men best known for the screenplays of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and its “remake” (yes, I am being facetious) directed by Carol Reed, Night Train to Munich (1940).  Three years after Night Train, the talented duo co-directed their first film, Millions Like Us (1943), which inspired them to form their own company, Individual Pictures, in 1945.  Beginning with The Rake’s Progress (1945), Launder and Gilliat produced at the studio such film classics as Green for Danger (1946) and Wee Geordie (1955)—they would work on a total of forty movies throughout their career, most notably the successful film series based on Ronald Searle’s cartoon creations that kicked off in 1954 with The Belles of St. Trinian’s.

Although Launder and Gilliat collaborated on their screenplays, the two men would often trade off on directorial assignments…with Frank tackling the comedy films and Sidney preferring movies about mystery and suspense.  So Dark Stranger is definitely a curio; it’s a suspense film, as espionage tales usually are…there are some real nail-biting moments including a Hitchcockian sequence in which Bridie must dispose of Miller’s body (she’s placed it in the wheelchair that she uses to push an elderly gentleman around in as part of her pub duties) without attracting suspicion and when our heroine finds the notebook with the classified information a voice behind her cries out “Don’t move!  Stay where you are!  (It turns out to be a photographer taking a still.)

But Dark Stranger is also leavened with many light comedic moments very much in the mold of the previously mentioned Lady Vanishes.  When the film’s narrative takes the characters to the Isle of Man, there are two security officers there—played by Garry Marsh (whose character’s name is Captain Goodhusband) and Tom Macaulay—that are so Charters and Caldicott-like I’d bet dollars to donuts Launder and Gilliat approached Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne to play the parts (but were probably turned down).  Every scene the two officers are in is played for laughs (their assistant, who first enters their shared office blowing her nails in an attempt to dry the polish, is later referred to as “darling” by Goodhusband before he corrects himself with “corporal”), despite the fact that they’re in charge of locating Bridie’s whereabouts when she’s wanted for questioning.  When the proprietress (Joan Hickson) of a Manx hotel says with concern, “I hope this doesn't mean that someone has escaped from the internment camp and is staying at the hotel” Macaulay’s Lt. Spanwick cracks: “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.”

I’d probably use the word “droll” to describe Launder & Gilliat’s style; the material is presented seriously for the most part with just a smidge of that veddy British humor added for flavor.  The film’s only real weakness is that it sometimes goes a bit overboard with the comedy; a sequence where Bridie and Baynes have been captured by Nazi agents isn’t particularly hurt by the blending of some tomfoolery involving a funeral procession that’s really a blind for a smuggling operation…but the climactic fight between Baynes and the bad guys is a slapstick melee stationed around a bathtub in a room at a Northern Island inn and is completely out-of-sync with the serious tone of what preceded it.

At this point in her career, Deborah Kerr—with successful roles in such movies as The Day Will Dawn (1942) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)—was just one more film away from starting a lucrative and longer-lasting livelihood in Hollywood (her agent sold her contract to M-G-M in 1944).  She was 24 at the time I See a Dark Stranger was made (and is not only convincing as the 21-year-old Bridie but even passes for fourteen in an opening sequence where she listens to her father’s blarney from a backroom in the local pub), and to say she was positively luminous in this movie would be an extreme understatement.  I think Dark Stranger is one of her best films and Bridie Quilty one of her finest roles—a fiercely independent (I love the early feminist touches here in that Bridie wants to join up and fight for a political cause in lieu of settling for a married existence) woman who can show her softer side as well; Kerr takes a character that is flawed from the get-go (you have to admit, wanting to help the Nazis simply because you subscribe to the old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” trope is a little twisted) and makes her endearing (those soulful eyes suck me in every time).  Admittedly, the movie does have to resort to the old romantic cop-out (it is the movies, after all) but even though her hooking up with Howard’s Baynes at the end is a little too storybook (not that I’m against the two of them getting together, mind you—one of my favorite moments occurs when Howard blurts out that he loves her and her reaction is a wonderful blend of both surprise, admiration and regret) the film’s final “gag” suggests that all will not be peaches and cream after the honeymoon.

For her performances in I See a Dark Stranger and Black Narcissus (the movie I was originally going to write about for the blogathon but then I changed my mind at the last minute), Kerr won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress—an accolade that she would capture two more times with her turns in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and The Sundowners (1960)—both of which featured TDOY god Robert Mitchum as co-star (the acting duo also appeared together in 1960’s The Grass is Greener and the 1985 TV-movie Reunion at Fairbrough).  Though she was nominated six times for an Academy Award she had to settle for a mere honorary statuette in 1994—which is a bit of a shame since I always admired her versatility as an actress (with roles as disparate as those in Julius Caesar, From Here to Eternity, The Innocents and The Night of the Iguana) and still believe she’s never really received her proper due.

Trevor Howard is another favorite of mine—an actor who never really looked like a leading man but was capable of pulling it off (and he’s pretty good in this movie) in flicks like Brief Encounter (1945) and one of my favorites, They Made Me a Fugitive (1947).  (He’ll always be in my mind Joseph Cotten’s nemesis, Major Calloway, in The Third Man [1949].)   He’s very good in this, though he’s got a tough row to hoe in that he’s overshadowed by Kerr for the most part.  The supporting cast isn’t particularly familiar to Yank audiences but Disney devotees might recognize future Mary Poppins pop David Tomlinson as an intelligence officer and future Darby O’Gill Albert Sharpe (in his film debut) as the pub landlord toward the film’s end.  Torin Thatcher, “the poor man’s George Sanders,” plays the cop that Kerr’s Bridie runs into as she’s trying to dispose of Huntley’s corpse and the “little old lady” on the train who turns out to be a Nazi agent is played by Katie Johnson, the indestructible senior citizen in the classic 1955 comedy The Ladykillers.

Dark Stranger was released by Eagle-Lion in the U.S. in 1947 as The Adventuress—shortly before Deborah Kerr’s first two films for M-G-M, The Hucksters and If Winter Comes also made their debuts in theatres in August and December, respectively.  It got glowing reviews but its box office take was relatively modest…which is kind of a shame because it really is one of my favorite films of Kerr’s—I think she does a marvelous job as the spirited Bridie, who reminds me at times of Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man.  The movie was seen under its U.S. title for many years (and in a truncated 98-minute version) but even though the Region 1 DVD version is currently OOP it turns up on TCM every now and then in all of its full 112-minute glory…so I’d recommend you catch it the next time it rolls around on TCM (it’s a shame they couldn’t make room for her on the schedule today for her birthday…).

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ClassicBecky said...

I do enjoy reading reviews of movies I know nothing about - I've never heard of this one, and I think I'd remember a great name like that. It sounds like a very strange story, as you describe: "Kerr takes a character that is flawed from the get-go (you have to admit, wanting to help the Nazis simply because you subscribe to the old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” trope is a little twisted) and makes her endearing..." It is hard to feel you can empathize with someone who would help Nazis, even if she is an IRA wannabe and hates Britain. It is also hard to imagine comedy bits in such a story.

This is one that has to be seen to be appreciated, I think. I love Deborah Kerr and Trevor Howard as well. I recognize the supporting cast names and feel it must have a lot to give. Just as an aside, my favorite Deborah Kerr movie is "The Innocents" and for Trevor Howard "Brief Encounter." Wonderful actors, both.

You have created interest in this movie for me; I hope it is shown sometime soon by TCM, and I'll try to remember it to catch! Oh, by the way, isn't Bridie Quilty just a wonderful name? Excellent post, Ivan.

Sophie said...

This was such a great read - thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I always love to see ISADS getting some love as I think a lot of people tend to focus on Deborah's Hollywood years and forget that she made some smashing British films. Bridie Quilty is definitely a very interesting character and quite a different type of role for Deborah at the time. Still, she showed her prowess as an actress. :)

Yvette said...

A great post, Ivan. So enjoyed reading it. Actually, enjoyed it more than I did the movie. But that's just me.

I watched the film a few weeks ago - it's available for streaming on Netflix - and I must admit I wasn't thrilled with it. I mean, it was okay, I just lost track of the story after awhile. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention.

I do love Deborah Kerr, though.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I must admit I wasn't thrilled with it. I mean, it was okay, I just lost track of the story after awhile. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention.

I think you brought up an excellent point, Yvette...this is definitely a movie that probably demands multiple viewings because I'll confess I had to watch it at least three times (I had it on my DVD player in my room on a loop) to completely follow the narrative.