Secret People Review

1930. After the murder of their father in their home country, which has become a dictatorship, Maria Brentano (Valentina Cortese) and her younger sister Eleonora (Audrey Hepburn taking over as an adult) flee to London. Seven years later, they take on British citizenship, changing their family name to Brent. Maria and Eleonora (Audrey Hepburn) take a trip to Paris, where Maria meets her former lover Louis (Serge Reggiani). He draws the two sisters into his plot to assassinate the dictator, which has huge consequences for them.

Thorold Dickinson devised the storyline for Secret People in 1946 with novelist Joyce Cary (male, and not to be mistaken for the actress Joyce Carey – he receives an acknowledgement in the opening credits) and when Ealing head Michael Balcon invited Dickinson to make a film for the studio, this film was the result. The original storyline took place in 1916; Dickinson's rewrite (with Wolfgang Wilhelm - Christianna Brand is credited with "additional dialogue") updated the story to the 1930s.

While there was always more to Ealing Studios than the gentle comedies it's most famous for, Secret People is a particularly strange and exotic fruit to have grown there. A sometimes uneasy but often striking blend of political thriller, romance and art movie, it’s a British film where the three lead actors are respectively Italian, French and Belgian. The film was a difficult production and not really understood by the studio, who shortened it to fit it on a double bill. (It isn't stated how much was cut but for what it's worth the final length was quoted by the studio as 94 minutes, but the BBFC submission records a time of 95:55.) The result was a flop, and became Thorold Dickinson’s last film in the UK. (He made one more, Hill 42 Does Not Answer, in Israel in 1955.) By the time of his death, in 1984, Dickinson was a neglected figure, something that was beginning to be reversed by a then-quite-rare showing of his 1940 version of Gaslight on British television the previous year (I watched it). Secret People remains a flawed film, but there is still plenty to recommend it.

If Secret People seems more overtly political in subject matter than the average Ealing production, let’s not forget that it was a period piece at the time it was made. It wasn’t very much earlier than this that the BBFC prided itself on not allowing current political issues to appear before the masses on British cinema screens. Secret People is set at a time when fascism was on the rise in Europe – and to underline this, there’s a brief shot of a Nazi flag during a sequence when Maria and Eleonora visit Paris. Identity is a recurring theme: Maria and Eleonora’s British citizenship comes with an Anglicisation of their family name and Eleonora takes this further in her dancing career by shortening her first name to Nora. And Maria’s “career” involves a change of name, and appearance, in the latter stages of the film.

Valentina Cortese, spelled “Cortesa” in the credits, still alive at this writing, had a distinguished career in Europe, with work for Fellini, Antonioni and Truffaut on her CV, and some occasional work in the UK and USA. She seems awkward working in English (fair enough, so is her character) and the film is less affecting than it might have been as a result – though as this isn’t Dickinson’s cut of the film (does that still exist?) this may not be the actress’s fault. On the other hand, this was an early and eye-catching role for Audrey Hepburn, who gives her scenes considerable vitality. Dickinson takes advantage of Hepburn’s dance training by making her character a ballerina and giving her no fewer than three sequences to showcase her ability. Serge Reggiani is solid in support along with some leading British character actors. Bob Monkhouse, in his debut, turns up as a hairdresser and well-known circus clown Charlie Cairoli appears as himself.

Dickinson’s direction is very stylish – not least in a scene that goes into flashback by means of a camera movement and not a cut. Elsewhere, he pulls off a bomb-laying sequence worthy of Hitchcock. The ending seems a little rushed, though that may be the fault of the studio edits. Lindsay Anderson wrote a book about the film's production, Making a Film. It's long out of print, and online used copies are expensive, but you could try your local library.

Secret People is one of three Dickinson films that Optimum are releasing simultaneously, the others being The High Command and The Queen of Spades. While the last-named has to be the pick of the bunch, Secret People is often fascinating and certainly worth seeing.


Secret People is released by Optimum on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only.

Secret People predates the widescreen era and was filmed in Academy Ratio, The DVD transfer is correctly in 1.33:1 with no anamorphic enhancement necessary. The materials available appear to be in excellent tradition, and the transfer benefits as a result: it's sharp and the contrast, vital in a black and white film, seems right.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and it is clear and well balanced. Unfortunately there are no subtitles available, as is Optimum’s practice on their English-language releases. That’s always regrettable, and is particularly so here given the foreign accents of two of the principal cast.

There are two extras. One is the theatrical trailer (2:28), as you might expect on an Optimum catalogue disc. It clearly shows that Ealing weren't sure how to sell this film. Less expected, and very welcome, is a short appreciation of the film by Philip Horne (11:38). Horne is a somewhat hesitant speaker, but he covers all the main points admirably clearly.Watch this after the film if you haven't seen it before, as he includes some major plot spoilers. This item is presented in 16:9 anamorphic.

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