Secret People is a very peculiar propaganda picture. It’s mostly set in 1937, almost entirely involving Italian immigrants, and it’s very pro-British. The film downplays the idea fascist regimes are dangerous (fascist regimes in 1937, remember) while getting behind the idea of doing whatever the British government says, even if what they say is appease. Or don’t not appease. Secret People, if it had been made in 1938 and not 1951, would have been very pro-Chamberlain. Only it’s not from 1938, it’s from 1951 so there’s seemingly got to be a reason director and co-writer Dickinson is so wishy-washy. Because the propaganda of Secret People isn’t about a fascist Italian general (Hugo Schuster) killing an Italian Gandhi-type, but about how anti-fascist groups are bad and you should rat them out to the cops. The cops who will then use you as bait to catch the anti-fascists and almost get everyone you know killed because they kind of meander when it comes to dangerous work. Literal tea time and that sort of thing.
So it’s weird propaganda. And the finale is problematic. Dickinson desperately tries to go for melodrama and heart strings and kind of fails at both. It’s a strange failure too because the direction’s nothing special. Dickinson and cinematographer Gordon Dines fill the relatively mundane film with a bunch of great sequences, only to screw up the most important one. It needn’t be the most important sequence of the film; it’s the script’s most important moment (and the script fails) because the last third of the film is a bit of a mess. But even that messy third, right until the last scene, is at least rather well-made. Dickinson knows how to direct the script, he just doesn’t really know how to write it. And he’s got a great cast.
The film opens in 1930, with Italian immigrant to Britain Charles Goldner finding out his old friend, the aforementioned Italian Gandhi-type, is sending his daughters to Goldner for their safety. Turns out news of their father’s execution beats them to England, they just don’t know. So very, very heavy stuff, with Goldner doing a great job comforting mostly older sister Valentina Cortese. The younger sister, as soon as the film jumps ahead, is going to be Audrey Hepburn. Until then, the younger sister is pretty much off screen.
The time jump is seven years. It starts with Cortese, now working in Goldner’s cafe (and helping make it more successful), and Hepburn, now Hepburn (and, we’ll soon find out, an aspiring dancer), getting their legal British citizenship status. Like good immigrants. There’s even a line about how British only like good immigrants who don’t start trouble. At the time, it seems like the guy saying it is supposed to be a xenophobic dick but maybe he’s not? At least, not on reflection after watching the rest of the picture.
Anyway, Cortese sees a poster advertising Schuster coming to the UK on a speaking tour. Got to hear both sides of the fascist nationalist debates, after all. Again, at the time, it seems like Secret People is anti-Schuster, anti-fascist. Because, after all, he did murder Cortese and Hepburn’s wonderful dad.
Goldner sees Cortese is upset and decides—thanks to them being legal residents—it’s time to go to Paris for the weekend. In Paris, Cortese runs into her old paramour (Serge Reggiani) who has become a dashing international journalist. Only he’s not really a journalist, he’s an anti-fascist resistance fighter. And he tells his people he can get Cortese to help them assassinate Schuster.
Meanwhile Cortese just thinks she’s found the love of her life again and Hepburn is about to break out in at a society function doing a dance solo. Goldner, however, he can tell there’s something up with Reggiani. And so begins the thriller. It turns out to be a very different kind of thriller, a deliberately paced one, with some great direction from Dickinson and some fine writing. But the picture’s all about Cortese and her performance. It’s phenomenal. Until the third act when everything gets a little too silly, then it’s just good but they’ve also taken the movie away from her so whatever she can do is something.
For most of its runtime, Secret People doesn’t just succeed in spite of its weird propaganda elements, it excels, all thanks to Cortese’s performance, the peculiar plotting, the strong direction. But Cortese holds it all together. The other performances are all strong, they just don’t make the film work. Cortese makes the whole thing work, whether it’s her romance with Reggiani, her protective and supportive sister stuff with Hepburn, her vulnerable but not relationship with Goldner; all of it.
Goldner’s good, though he gets less and less to do as the action moves on. Hepburn’s good; she gets some great moments, but not a great character arc. At least not on screen. Her strongest scenes are when her mostly off-screen arc breaks through to the main action. She doesn’t really get to do much character development; after all, she’s just going to be caricatured so Dickinson can get the ending he wants.
Reggiani’s uneven, but convincingly horny as he’s always trying to seduce Cortese until it’s time to give her a bomb. In a better version of Secret People, Reggiani’s character would be just as important as Cortese’s. But in this one, he’s not. So the uneven rarely matters.
Megs Jenkins is great as Goldner’s live-in cafe employee and maybe housekeeper. It’s unclear what she does in either the cafe or the living quarters, but Jenkins does all of it rather well.
Secret People is shockingly good, considering all its big problems; sometimes excellent direction from Dickinson, the surprising storyline, and the leads’ acting makes the difference.
Directed by Thorold Dickinson; screenplay by Christianna Brand, Dickinson, and Wolfgang Wilhelm, based on a story by Dickinson and Joyce Cary; director of photography, Gordon Dines; edited by Peter Tanner; music by Roberto Gerhard; produced by Sidney Cole; released by General Film Distributors Ltd.
Starring Valentina Cortese (Maria), Serge Reggiani (Louis), Charles Goldner (Anselmo), Audrey Hepburn (Nora), Megs Jenkins (Penny), Irene Worth (Miss Jackson), Reginald Tate (Inspector Eliot), and Hugo Schuster (General Galbern).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE AUDREY AT 90: THE SALUTE TO AUDREY HEPBURN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY JANET OF SISTER CELLULOID.