April 03, 2006
I See a Dark Stranger
Frank Launder - 1946
Home Vision Region 1 DVD
Frank Launder is associated with one nearly perfect film. That film is The Lady Vanishes. Of three films directed by Carol Reed, I have only seen Kipps, but I suspect the other two films are at least as watchable. I See a Dark Stranger was one of several films that Launder made with filmmaking partner Sidney Gilliat that attempts to show that they could make a Hitchcock style film without Hitchcock. Not surprisingly, they couldn't. Stranger is nowhere near as bad as Gilliat's Endless Night, but it is a film that could have been better. There is even a scene involving an old woman met at a train by two authority figures that is clearly reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, indicating how badly Gilliat and Launder were hoping to make lightning strike twice.
The premise was certainly interesting: Taking place in 1944, a young Irish woman, raised on the legend of the Irish Republican Army's fight against British rule, attempts to join the IRA soon after her 21st birthday. In her anti-English zeal, ignoring Ireland's official neutrality, Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr) allows herself to work on behalf of a German spy. Bridie is subsequently pursued by a British intelligence office (Trevor Howard). Where Gilliat and Launder blunder twice is in motivation. While Bridie's anti-English sentiments are clear, her reasoning for working on behalf of a German spy and her change of mind are tenuous at best. Worse, is the heavy-handed humor that includes close-ups of eyes rolling as a reaction to dull conversation, a funeral procession that is revealed to be a disguise for a smuggling operation, a den of spies defeated by slapstick pratfalls and jokes concerning Oliver Cromwell. Where Hitchcock moves quickly leaping over gaps of logic, and never lets a joke get in the way of narrative momentum, Launder loses his way. If Hitchcock is elegant penmanship, Launder is the guy who writes with big letters, underlined three times for emphasis.
One bit of business that meanders from the narrative is actually funny. The scene involves two supremely incompetent British officers with their leggy secretary. It's the kind of scene that anticipates one of Launder and Gilliat's better films, The Belles of St. Trinian's.
The main reason to see Stranger is for Deborah Kerr. This is only one of two films available on DVD to showcase Kerr before she was signed by MGM, although it should be noted that Love on the Dole is available in PAL format. As nicely as Kerr is photographed, as above, by Wilkie Cooper, Kerr is one of those few actors who looks better photographed in color. Kerr's screen presence is such that it demands playing opposite someone like Cary Grant or Robert Mitchum. Trevor Howard, never a likely leading man, looks even more foolish as an action hero, fist-fighting Nazi spies. As prolific as they were, Gilliat and Launder, with their oddly named company, Individual Pictures, would never hit the target as well as rivals Powell and Pressburger, also known as The Archers. Both teams of filmmakers made films starring Kerr in succession, with Black Narcissus following I See a Dark Stranger. The Gilliat-Launder film may not have the classic status given to Powell and Pressburger's film, but it worth a glimpse of the actress who briefly ruled over British cinema.
Posted by peter at April 3, 2006 12:31 PM
I am at a loss to explain this gentleman's easy dismissal of I SEE A DARK STRANGER, which is a first-rate, highly entertaining movie. I can only assume he was in a terrible mood when he played it.
It is teeming with ideas, good scenes and nicely judged performances. The sets, music and photography are all on a very high level. On a scale of one-ten, this one is assuredly a solid nine.
Posted by: Dan Guenzel at March 2, 2007 10:29 PM