Director: Basil Dearden
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Peter McEnery
(Rank Film Distributors, 1961) Rated: Not rated
DVD release date: 2002
I See a Dark Stranger
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Partners in Crime
A number of prominent British filmmaking teams worked together over their lifetimes. In particular, two duos crossed genre lines routinely, swerving from the hilarious to the heart-stopping. The first, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, earned their stripes as screenwriters with the British comic icon of the 1930s, Will Hay. They then graduated to worldwide esteem by penning Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Sir Carol Reed’s all-but-virtual remake of the film, Night Train to Munich (1940).
During WWII, they began to direct their own material. And starting in 1950, they released a sequence of sublimely silly films about the bad girls of St. Trinians, a bottom-of-the-barrel private school supervised by the acid-tongued Alistair Sim in drag. They also made a whodunit set in a wartime hospital, Green For Danger (1946), the original version of the juvenile South Seas romance The Blue Lagoon (1949), and a nostalgic biography of the maestros of operetta Gilbert and Sullivan (1953). While neither Launder nor Gilliat broke new cinematic ground, their films never lacked for spirit or suspense and hold up remarkably well today.
The other pair, Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, likewise began their careers working with Will Hay on his final films. While comedy was less frequent in their subsequent work, Dearden and Relph nonetheless created the sole film vehicle of Benny Hill, Who Done It? (1957), and often interjected a jocular tone into other genres, as in the caper thriller, The League of Gentlemen (1960), and the spy film, Masquerade (1964).
The bulk of their work was dramatic, often addressing social problems and integrating the news of the day. These subjects range from the difficulty of European war survivors to integrate into postwar culture, Freida (1947), to the criminal hostility of urban youth, The Blue Lamp (1950), to antagonism over racial integration, Sapphire (1959).
Despite the fact that they took on controversial subjects, Dearden and Relph’s films were, ideologically and formally, middle of the road. The late British critic Raymond Durgnat compared them to the American purveyor of message movies, Stanley Kramer, observing their “modest submission to reasonable authority” and “celebration of stoic faith in what one’s leaders demand.” Dearden and Relph’s protagonists routinely end up doing the right thing, but the films’ efficient and unadorned presentations fail to work up much emotional steam.
Launder and Gilliat were more successful in their collaborations, and even took risks in mixing genres, as is the case with their 1946 release, I See A Dark Stranger. Alternately suspenseful and slapstick, the picture focuses on an earnest young Irish colleen, Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr). Raised to hate the British, Bridie leaves home on her 21st birthday for Dublin, where she volunteers for the IRA. Dismissed by the group as a political innocent, she anonymously makes her mark by dumping paint on the statue of the historic figure she most perceives as a traitor, Oliver Cromwell.
This action draws the attention of a foreign spy, Miller (Raymond Huntley), who recruits Bridie for the German cause. Even the attention paid her by an attractive English officer, Lt. David Byrne (Trevor Howard), fails to divert Bridie from her obstinate path, until she finally confronts the violence and deceit at the core of espionage. Herein, Launder and Gilliat shift the tone from light farce to subtle tension, which leads to a Hitchcockian sequence involving a corpse in a wheelchair. In an effort to compensate, Bridie takes off in search of Miller’s cohorts.
The film concludes with a comic flourish, but not before guns are drawn, liquor is smuggled, and the Irish achieve a tentative rapprochement with their historical antagonists. I See a Dark Stranger is a gleeful amalgam of hijinks and heroism. In some senses a Celtic screwball comedy, it permits Kerr to stretch beyond her usual role as a refined woman of the world. Bridie allows Kerr to run the gamut from hotheaded heroine to pratfalling buffoon.
If I See a Dark Stranger willfully mixes genres, Dearden and Relph’s Victim takes an altogether sober and serious approach to its subject, the undeserved criminalization of homosexuality. Produced after the 1957 report of the Wolfenden Committee, which recommended the legalization of gay behavior and acts, the film serves as a kind of fictional brief for the cause. Shaped like a thriller, it details the blackmailing and eventual suicide of Jack Barrett (Peter McEnery), known as Boy, who wishes to hide his unconsummated association with a prominent barrister, Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde).
In the aftermath of Barrett’s demise, Farr endeavors to ferret out the culprit, risking his social position as well as the estrangement of his wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms), when he is forced to admit his attraction to Barrett. In the course of his investigations, Farr comes to realize not only the tenuous status he would possess as a gay-identified public figure, but also the depth of his very genuine attachment to his wife.
The wealth of detail about gay life at the time and the often adverse public perception of homosexual behavior ensures Victim‘s lasting fascination as a social document. In this context, Barrett comes across as epitome of the type whom Richard Dyer labels the “sad young man.” Consumed by unrequited love, he bears the melancholy temperament of one condemned to isolation. In the course of his investigations, Farr finds that while other people possess a soft spot for Barrett’s plight, few to none are willing to assist him financially or otherwise when he is threatened by the blackmailer.
At the same time, Farr is endlessly compelling, as is Bogarde’s very decision to take the part. In 1961, he was a British matinee idol. Throughout the prior decade, he appeared in succession of conventional romantic leads, particularly in the sequence of medical farces, beginning with Doctor in the House (1955), as well as conservative war narratives. A small handful of his films featured more psychologically complex material, and some incorporated a homoerotic subtext. But none took on the subject as bluntly as Victim. Bogarde was himself gay, though he never came out publicly at any point before his death in 1999.
Dearden and Relph’s delineation of Farr is appropriately ambivalent. For all the picture’s overt support of the evils of homophobia, heterosexual marriage is presented as the “normative” manner of human association. The gay relationships Farr observes in the course of his investigations are shown as shallow or, at the least, transitory, while the Farrs’ marriage assumes a legitimacy that none of the gay characters can claim.
Even if the filmmakers’ intentions were to argue for the mainstreaming of homosexuality, their gay characters tend to seem “deviant” or “handicapped.” One is blind, and most are photographed so as to accentuate their less than attractive features. Their visible “difference” further dissociates Farr from them, much as he chooses to ostracize himself. As a result, Victim remains a remarkably progressive call for equality that yet bears its historical moment’s phobic tendencies.