Tag Archives: Irene Worth

Secret People (1952, Thorold Dickinson)

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.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

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.


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The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).