In the first of a series of hidden gems of the big screen you have to see once, Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People goes under the microscope.
What’s revealed is a true masterpiece of the cinema of provocation. Through technical quality and thematic depth, Dickinson crafted a quite brilliant film.
Released in 1952 through Ealing Studios, Secret People is at once an anti-violence parable, as well as a treatise on the shadowy and malevolent aspects of human nature.
The story focuses on two immigrant sisters, Maria Brentano (Valentina Cortese) and Nora Brentano (Audrey Hepburn). The pair move to London to escape the reach of fascist dictator General Galbern.
Soon after their arrival, Maria learns that their father, Pietro, a champion of non-violent resistance, has been murdered by the Galbern regime. With the appetite for revolt brewing in her system, Maria reunites with old boyfriend Louis (Serge Reggiani) in Paris, beginning a cycle of events fraught with murder, trickery and ethical dilemmas.
The film is thematically incredibly rich and thought-provoking. Dickinson’s final script is very political, particularly in its dissection of the right to rebel, and its championing of peaceful resistance.
Those issues are explored via the uncomfortable romance between Maria and Louis. The latter woos his lover into assisting an underground network dedicated to killing Galbern and dictators like him.
But the violence soon proves too much for Maria, who despite the motivation to avenge her father’s death, won’t accept Galbern’s murder as a right and just action.
Her pacifism is contrasted by Louie’s cynical, hard-hearted willingness to fight killing with killing. He believes that conquering evil means matching it in kind. Louis, or Gregor as he is known to his nefarious associates, embodies the end justifying the means.
In this sense, Secret People evokes events from the Second World War, a fact noted by Film historian Philip Horne in his brief, but engaging analysis for the DVD release.
Horne also states that Dickinson spent time in Spain during the Civil War between the Republicans and Franco’s fascist armies.
It’s easy to see Louis as similar to those German generals who believed murder was the only way to stop Adolf Hitler in July 1944, in the famous “Valkyrie” operation.
But Louis’ views have come to warp his soul, and that is the real essence of Secret People’s message. The film often references a W.H. Auden quote: “We must love one another, or die.”
But the most powerful message is actually the opening excerpt:
Louis, hardened by the injustice he sees around the world, has let his inner rage define him, turning him into a cold and ruthless killer. By contrast, when Maria is faced with crisis, her core fidelity to compassion, understanding and peace wins the day.
While it echoes some of the moral struggles presented by WWII, Secret People is also a bridging point between that conflict and the burgeoning Cold War.
Dickinson depicted secret organisations that rally against global powers. He also portrayed, via Louis’ control over Maria and Nora, the way people can be manipulated into betraying their core values for a particular cause.
All of those elements were rife during the Cold War years, with the espionage-led conflict picking up pace in the early fifties.
While its thematic richness is still powerful and challenging, Secret People also succeeds as brash and stylish cinema. It is notable for two examples of Dickinson’s technical wizardry.
The most famous involves Maria returning to her London flat to recount to Louis a botched attempt on Galbern’s life at an evening garden party.
Staring out of the window into the night, Maria begins describing events to Louis. As she does, she turns and walks across the room.
At that moment, the background merges from the bedroom in the flat, to the earlier party’s garden terrace, complete with guests and background piano music.
The transition is seamless and flawless. No matter how often you see it, this brilliant moment of directorial daring still commands awe and respect.
In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), George Clooney made a commendable attempt to recreate this marvellous effect.
Dickinson followed the switch with a sequence almost its equal. The day after his assassination plot has failed, Louis drags the unwilling Nora to meet the committee members of his secret organisation.
She is shown into a crowded room that is all darkness and shadows. A flashlight glares in Maria’s face, providing the scene’s only illumination.
The faces of her interrogators are all cast in pitch black shadow. Dickinson framed the scene by showing the feet of each committee member as Maria’s point of reference.
Members of the conversation are depicted as they move their feet toward or away from Maria, almost signalling an attack. The devilish scene serves to further emphasise the shadowy world of secrecy and violence that exists around and inside all of us.
Secret People combines technical filmic brilliance with challenging themes, to deliver a thoroughly provocative cinematic gem.