I'm often surprised by the light-hearted attitude 1940s British comedies take towards World War II. A vivid example being 1946's I See a Dark Stranger, a comedy spy thriller about a naive Irishwoman who becomes a spy for Germany during the war. The film is a finely crafted enough comedy by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and I couldn't help feeling affection for the characters even as I felt its treatment might be a bit too breezy. On other hand, maybe something like this wasn't wholly a bad idea at a time when Britain, Ireland, and Germany were trying to find a way of being at peace with each other after bitter conflict.
The film's opening scene is really remarkable for its context. Set in a pub in an Irish village, an old man tells a story of fighting in the Irish Revolution and stirringly describes killing English soldiers. Mind you, this is a British film. If the Irish characters here seem a bit buffoonish, they're no worse than the English characters shown later on. In fact, they're a bit less buffoonish.
Deborah Kerr, whose Irish accent sounds a lot more natural than her American accent, plays Bridie Quilty who's been raised on the stories of the revolution, her father having fought in it. It being her twenty first birthday, she decides to go to Dublin and meet with her father's old comrade, Michael O'Callaghan (Brefni O'Rorke), to join the IRA. To her disappointment, O'Callaghan has come to accept peace with Britain and tries to convince her to do likewise. O'Rorke plays the character as calm and wise in contrast to Bridie's youthful rashness and I suspect part of the motive with this film was to reassure British audiences that Ireland was an ally and dissenters were sentimental old men and adorable young fools. On the one hand, it's a nice idea to put everyone at ease with each other, on the other, it's a bit patronising. Still, O'Callaghan comes across as easily the wisest character in the film.
Spotted in a bookshop buying books on learning the German language, Bridie's recruited by a German spy who goes by the name of Miller (Raymond Huntley). Of all places, he puts her on assignment in an English town with a statue of Oliver Cromwell, whom Bridie takes every opportunity throughout the film to curse.
And, wouldn't you know, Miller has her seduce a British officer named David Baynes (Trevor Howard) who says he's there because he's working on a thesis on Cromwell. As with the explicit details of World War II and the Irish Revolution, Bridie never manages to say precisely why she and everyone back home hate Cromwell so much. Discussing slaughter at the hands of Cromwell and his men at Drogheda would risk making Bridie not seem so foolish.
Because the German agent is a buffoon, his assumption that David is an intelligence officer based on the fact that David says he's not in town to fish turns out to be utterly wrong. This puts Bridie into a rage after she's wasted a whole afternoon falling in love with David. Miller's not nearly as buffoonish, though, as the leader of the German spies in England we meet later played by a portly Norman Shelley in a ridiculous check sport coat and boater hat.
Witnessing his interrogation technique of slapping someone in the face a few times can only seem insultingly trite at this point.
But meanwhile, the British COs in the Isle of Man, where Bridie and David end up, are a strange pair of philandering big men with matching moustaches and bald heads who routinely fumble in their jobs.
The film actually shows some British military police getting shot so I wonder how comfortable war veterans were laughing at this movie. But many of the gags are very good and the leads are charming.