Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Anarchy in the UK… The Secret People (1952)

There are several reasons for seeing this film, one of the main ones being the chance to see Audrey Hepburn revealed as the ballet dancer she trained so hard to be. But this is also a very earnest enterprise that attempts to examine the morality of violence for the greater good. Made just six years after the ending of the Second World War, it looks at the collateral damage of direct action: how many innocent lives are acceptable in the pursuit of fascists?

It’s a question with a very contemporary relevance… but when over the last century have their not been fascists to kill? When is the call to war unanswerable and when do the needs of the many suddenly outweigh those of the few? There can hardly have been anyone working on this film not affected personally by the losses of the war and, whilst the film sometimes feels a little restrained, it deals in a language that would have been more understandable at the time. After the devastation you don’t really need to shout.

Valentina Cortese
Directed by Thorold Dickinson Secret People is the story of two sisters, Maria (Valentina Cortese) and Nora Brentano (Angela Fouldes) sent from an unnamed European state to stay with their uncle Anselmo (Charles Goldner) in London. Their father is an outspoken journalist in his own country, a man who believes in the power of words and not violence and yet who has finally been arrested by the country’s ruler, General Galborn (Hugo Schuster). The future is uncertain and Maria leaves behind her lover Louis (Serge Reggiani) - desperate times and soon Maria receives a parcel containing her father’s precious pen – his “sword” – he has been killed by the butcher Brentano.

The years pass and whilst Maria learns to cook in Anselmo’s Café, Nora grows up into Audrey Hepburn and she can dance!

Charles Goldner
Maria longs for a change of pace and to be a writer herself telling Anselmo that she wants to leave to follow in her father’s footsteps. Her Uncle is a gracious as ever and proposes a trip to Paris to see an exhibition mirroring Britain’s own Festival of 1951. Whilst there, they enjoy a full day of eating and sightseeing before encountering General Galborn arriving at the British pavilion. He is barracked by protesters one of whom turns out to be long-lost Louis.

Maria and Louis enjoy a blissful day catching up – and the subtle buttoning of her shirt top in his garret hint at their level of intimacy – but in the evening he is distracted away by people who are clearly members of a cell of freedom fighters: ruthless types who kill an untrustworthy contact in between Maria and Louis’s dancing at a night club.

Louis' cell - Serge Reggiani second from left
But Maria has no idea who she is now dancing with and, learning that Galborn is visiting Britain, Louis follows the girls back home: they are to be his cover and his route to target. He arranges for Nora to pass an audition to dance at the garden party arranged for the General’s visit and then tells Maria of his plan to kill the man who had her father murdered.

She is to carry a compact into the party and then pass it on to another member of the group who will place it under the General’s chair. It is to be a controlled explosion and no one else should be hurt. Maria is confused, and disorientated by the last minute shock and concern for Nora she agrees to the plot.

Audrey takes flight
But, once inside the party, she can hardly bear to watch as Nora dances and then a clown (your genuine Charlie Cairoli) take the stage. The tension is palpable as she waits for the explosion and when the bomb goes off fatally injuring a waitress she rushes in to help. The General escapes virtually unscathed but the woman dies and Maria is hailed as a hero.

Louis is working in conjunction with a shadowy – literally – group of home-grown revolutionaries who meet in darkened rooms to discuss and sign off any actions. He takes Maria to see them after the action to assure them that she’ll keep their secrets but neither party is sure as she gets called into Scotland Yard.

Nora dances and then Maria looks on waiting for the bomb to go off...
Maria appalled by the cold calculation of Louis’ and these armchair anarchists tells all to the kindly Miss Jackson (Irene Worth) and her earnest Inspector Eliot (Reginald Tate) and a plan is hatched to catch the key players, Louis included.

There are brooding shots aplenty of traffic-free grimed London streets around Soho I’d guess, as the Special Branch closes in and events come to a head… Can Maria escape the consequences of Louis’ actions and will even Nora be pulled into the vortex of his ever increasing desperation?

Maria and Louis walk down Litchfield Street, past The Ivy towards Charing Cross Road
Secret People gets damned with faint praise in some reviews but in truth it’s pretty uncompromising and whilst some books get balanced the General carries on: Nora and Marie’s father’s murder goes unpunished.

Louis’ means do not justify his ends which have become increasingly fogged by the inaccuracy of his actions and the flawed thinking behind them. The process has become its own justification and the death of the waitress is just another small price to pay for their eventual and unlikely success.

The film doesn’t point to any other solution other than Marie’s father’s enduring plea for love and understanding. This isn’t soft or “dated”, these people had just fought a threat infinitely more vicious than any current threat to democracy and millions had died when there was genuinely no other way to go.

Them heavy people
So, for Louis, accepting the talking of innocent lives in the pursuit of political change is a step over to the other side, the totalitarianism he supposedly hates when expediency stops at nothing in pursuit of the aim.

Marie’s father’s words are heard again urging peace, understanding and dialogue as the only solution: the pen is always mightier than the sword.

Valentina Cortese
Valentina Cortese gives a superb performance which more than compensates for the film’s occasionally deliberate tone. She brings a naturalism that adds tone and texture from the encouraging pat on Audrey’s tutu as she auditions to the unbelievable shift from besotted excitement before the party to the realisation of Louis’ double betrayal: in one sublime moment love to horror via disbelief.

Audrey steps out
Ms. Hepburn adds light to the play and dances superbly those years in the Belgian ballet conservatory enabling her to pirouette on point with power and grace belying her wartime deprivations that would forever impact on her appearance. Make war no more.

The Secret People are everywhere but hard to find… you might try watching Amazon for it surely needs a re-release.

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