Released during a successful run of comedies that included the classics The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob, 1952’s Secret People was an attempt by the legendary Ealing Studios to venture into more mature and political waters. Earlier in the company’s history they had produced a slew of military movies, even while war continued to rage across Europe, while also receiving acclaim for their horror anthology Dead of Night. But it was the positive response to their 1949 comedy Whisky Galore! that would become the catalyst for the slew of spoofs and satires that would be released over the following decade, many starring their stock cast of Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway.
Although distributed by the studio, Secret People had been developed independently by Thorold Dickinson, who had entered the industry in the 1930s as an editor for Associated Talking Pictures, the company that would later evolve into Ealing. A noted figure of the London Film Society, Dickinson made his directorial debut in 1937 with High Command, developed under his newly formed production company Fanfare Pictures, before enjoying modest success with Gaslight and Next of Kin. A statement on terrorism and the sacrifices made in the name of freedom, Secret People was arguably Dickinson’s most personal work to date and a radical change in direction for Ealing.
The story beings in 1930, when two young sisters are forced to flee from an unnamed European country and take refuge in London under the roof of Anselmo, a close friend of the family. Their father, fearing for his imminent arrest by their newly appointed fascist government, under the rule of ruthless dictator General Galbern, had sent his daughters away to begin a new life in England. Despite his reservations Anselmo agrees to take them in, but soon afterwards Maria receives news that their father has been murdered and begs Anselmo to keep the news from her younger sister.
Dickinson’s decision to set the story in the years leading up to the Second World War is worth noting, as the film refuses to reveal which country the two sisters had escaped from, although their homeland is now under the rule of a fictitious dictator, perhaps in reference to Adolf Hitler. The Führer had already been the target of satire in the hands of Charlie Chaplin, whose 1940 classic The Great Dictator had been produced before the full horrors of the Nazi concentration camps had become common knowledge around the world. But while Chaplin’s focus had been on the absurdity of Hitler’s beliefs, Dickinson instead explored the moral implications behind the actions of those fighting against fascist authority.
Seven years later, having finally received their citizenship, Maria works as a waitress in Anselmo’s café while Nora dreams of becoming a dancer, but when Maria sees the image of General Galbern looking down from a large billboard, old resentments and anger over the fate of her father are brought to the surface. Fearing that Maria is working too hard and not allowing herself to move on, Anselmo suggests that they take some time off and travel to Paris, bringing Nora along with them to enjoy the local attractions. But soon Maria comes face to face with her long lost lover, Louis, once a friend of her father and now a member of a secret resistance, fighting against the draconian rule of Galbern.
One key theme that Dickinson explored with Secret People, from a script he had written with Wolfgang Wilhelm, was what place terrorism has as a solution against an oppressive regime. Louis, a key member of a cell of freedom fighters intent on assassinating Galbern, vows to liberate his country by any means necessary, and as with all acts of terrorism there are innocent lives that are destroyed from his actions. Having obtained information from his contact in the embassy, Louis discovers that the General plans to attend a party in London, thus providing an ideal opportunity to end his reign of terror. But no war is without its casualties, and Louis seems more than willing to allow others to sacrifice their lives – knowingly or otherwise – for his cause.
The strongest element of Secret People is the casting, with the principal role of Maria being portrayed by Valentina Cortese. Having built up an impressive résumé in her native Italy through adaptations of The Ten Commandments and Les Misérables, Cortese was considered a star in Europe and was able to exert a certain amount of influence on her productions. Despite expecting her first child with fellow actor Richard Basehart at the time of filming, Cortese was fully committed to her role and, while Variety criticised her performance for being ‘restricted by the inadequacies of the story,’ she provided a believable character arc from innocent victim to terrorist sympathiser and, finally, victim once again.
Cortese would also provide guidance to her on-screen sister, a relatively inexperienced Belgian-born actress called Audrey Hepburn. The role of Nora seemed like a perfect transition into more substantial parts for the young beauty, being able to draw from her own memories of Arnhem during the Second World War. Having been relocated from London to the Netherlands by her mother, believing the country’s neutral status would keep them safe from the Nazis, Hepburn had witnessed first-hand the failed Allied Forces attempt to liberate the country with their ill-fated Operation Market Garden. When the war finally came to an end, Hepburn was allowed to return to London to continue her dance studies under the watchful eye of acclaimed teacher Marie Rambert.
Upon returning to England, Nora is excited to discover that she has an audition for a cabaret show, allowing her to show off her dancing skills. Sensing an opportunity, Louis pulls strings with a contact to make sure that Nora passes the audition, realising that he can use her for his own purpose. After inviting Maria to the party, Louis informs her that General Galbern will also be attending and that he has given her a bomb inside a cigarette case, with instructions to smuggle it into the event and hand it to one of his associates. Feeling that Anselmo is becoming too suspicious, Louis decides to tell him the truth and advises that it is his duty to protect her, but both sisters return some time later with the news that there was an explosion. When Louis asks Maria for details on what took place, she informs him that when the bomb exploded the only casualty was an innocent young waitress.
Throughout Europe during the Second World War there were acts of sabotage against the Nazis, with small groups of resistance fighters attempting to overthrow Germany’s military machine. Many of these were met with a ruthless response, with the perpetrators either executed or deported to concentration camps. Maria and Nora’s father met a similar fate, something that made Louis all the more determined to see Galbern removed from power, but to those unaware of the horrors that the General has been responsible for, Louis’ actions may seem like pointless acts of terrorism. Yet each assassination attempt has been met with failure, and with each one the resistance runs the risk of being discovered, thus bringing their liberation to an end.
When the police request that Maria visit Scotland Yard to receive praise for attempting to save the waitress, Louis’ resistance grows concerned that she could be a liability and so inform her that the last person they felt would betray them was disposed of. Unable to deal with the grief, Maria confesses her involvement to the police but refuses to cooperate in providing information on any future attacks. Whether it is for fear of what action the resistance will take against her if she betrays them or because of her feelings towards her former lover, it is clear that Louis has a strong hold over Maria, using his manipulative influence to achieve whatever he requires from her. Even after he has used her as a pawn, she seems reluctant to admit to herself that he is no longer the man she had once loved and that the horror he has been fighting against has had a profound effect on him.
Portraying Louis with a suitable mixture of charm and menace was Serge Reggiani, who would go on to become a regular collaborator of acclaimed French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, taking lead roles in the classic film noir Le Doulos (The Finger Man) and 1969’s L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) which, incidentally, told of the efforts of the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation. While Cortese and Hepburn portray the innocent and naïve victims, and Reggiani the eventual antagonist, it is Charles Goldner, in the role of Anselmo, who lends the movie its heart, placing the needs of the sisters before his own. In a story populated by selfish and devious characters, he demands the most sympathy and, even upon discovering the truth behind Maria’s involvement, vows to keep them safe from harm.
After finding themselves surrounded by the authorities, Louis orders Maria to help him complete his mission by threatening the life of his sister, but as they try to escape they are caught in an explosion. Months later, Maria awakens in a hospital bed to find that she is now living under the name Lena Collins and that Louis has been missing since her capture. After undergoing plastic surgery, Maria is released to start a new life, but first she attends a ballet which features a performance from Nora. This scene once again allowed Hepburn to demonstrate her dancing skills, something she would incorporate into several of her Hollywood movies, most notably the charming musical Funny Face. Hepburn was no stranger to performing in the theatre, having appeared in popular productions of High Button Shoes and Sauce Tartare during the late 1940s and early ’50s, and Secret People would not only provide the twenty-two-year-old with her first significant film role but would also show her confidence on the stage.
After the show Maria becomes convinced that members of the resistance have visited her sister, causing her to panic that Nora has now fallen under their spell. Discovering that General Galbern’s son is the next target, Maria fears the worst and follows Nora with the help of the police. Heading through the woods into a clearing, both Louis and Nora are shocked to discover that Maria is still alive, prompting Louis to accuse her of betrayal. She pleads with Nora to leave with her and to turn her back on Louis and the resistance, but one of his associates steps out of the shadows and stabs her in the back. With her last breath she tells her sister to ‘understand’ and ‘believe’ before dying in Nora’s arms. Louis is taken away by the police, realising the tragic mistake his actions have caused.
While biographers often cite Secret People as Hepburn’s first real performance, there are certainly other aspects of the movie to enjoy, although it often seems like a missed opportunity. The sequence in which Maria smuggles the bomb into the party to assassinate Galbern feels like it was cut short, as in the hands of a master of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock this could have been as suspenseful as the ‘bomb on the bus’ scene in Hitchcock’s underrated 1936′s thriller Sabotage. Dickinson clearly lacked the talent for tension, but where his strength did lie was with character, allowing the protagonists time to develop before the subplots begin.
Critics seemed somewhat underwhelmed when Secret People made its debut in 1952, while in the decades that followed the movie has received mixed reactions from writers. Were it not for the presence of Hepburn, whose Hollywood career would be launched the following year with the romantic classic Roman Holiday, it is possible that Secret People may have vanished into obscurity long ago. But while it may not stand as one of Ealing’s strongest offerings, it remains a stylish and curious piece that never found the acclaim it deserved.