I really wanted to like Secret People more than I did. Made within a year of The Gentle Gunman (1952), another Ealing project around terrorism (although about the IRA rather than the unidentified and Europe-wide 'Organisation' at the heart of this film), Secret People is obviously trying to do something different with its story, but I'm uncertain it succeeds or is as morally ambiguous as it claims to be. There's no doubting the quality of the filmmaking, or the performances, but the film just doesn't work as a whole, perhaps because the central relationships that fuel the narrative fail to convince.
In 1930, Maria Brentano (Valentina Cortese) and her sister Nora (Angela Fouldes) are sent to stay with Anselmo (Charles Goldner), a European settled in London and running a cafe. Maria and Nora's father, a well-known left wing writer in the unidentified European country from which they have fled (and a critic of the new military ruler General Galbern), dies in custody; while Maria's sweetheart Louis (Serge Reggiani) has gone into hiding. The sisters are brought up by Anselmo, who helps them get British citizenship: by 1937, Maria is working in the cafe, while Nora (now played by Audrey Hepburn) has a budding career as a ballet dancer. Yet Galbern continues to intrude on their lives, however accidentally: interviews in national newspapers and, in Paris, visiting the same British exhibition as them. In Paris, Maria meets Louis again and is drawn into the mysterious terrorist / rebel organisation that he is a member of. Louis manoeuvres Nora into an opportunity at a London society party that Galbern is attending, and convinces Maria to carry a bomb into the party. When the bomb kills a waitress by accident, Maria rejects Louis' ways and the organisation's creed of achieving their goals any way they can, confesses all to the police, is given a new identity (Lena Collins), but is then drawn back in when she realises the organisation has recruited Nora.
That synopsis covers the bare bones, but doesn't really get to grips with the film's attempt to deal with larger moral issues: political assassination, rebel causes, blind loyalty, personal vs. public politics, sisterly competition. Throw in director Thorold Dickinson's own political beliefs, his desire for British cinema to raise its artistic ambitions, Ealing Studios' more conservative outlook, and the presence of compelling performances from European stars Cortese, Regianni and Goldner, and the film is a striking creation of disparate and competing parts (the DVD features a useful introduction by Philip Thorne that goes into more detail on the background of the film than I can here). But that heady brew is also what complicates and, I think, prevents it from completely gelling as a film.
So what works? Well, the female-centric storyline is strong throughout, with a good meaty role for Cortese, and solid supporting work from Hepburn, Irene Worth (as Jackson, a policewoman who helps Maria in the latter part of the film) and Meg Jenkins, in a smaller role as the other café worker, Penny. Cortese goes some way to selling the more melodramatic elements of the film, notably the tempestuous relationship between Maria and the mysterious Louis, but the film requires such abrupt shifts in her character (most notably when she breaks down after the death of the waitress) that it can be difficult to keep up. Her interactions with Hepburn sell the sisterly bond well - there is a lovely moment where Hepburn, about to audition, appears to wink at the audience, yet she is actually winking at Maria, sat off to one side and reflected in the mirror - but the final confrontation between Maria and Nora is too brief to cover everything the moment needs (not least the fact that we learn Louis has seduced Nora, largely through tales of her heroic sister). Hepburn can also be a little of a blank slate at times, but then that is largely the role of the younger sister as written here. The male characters are less convincing: Louis is a one-note cipher, mysterious and willing to do anything for the cause, but with no real sense of what drives him; more successful is Anselmo, avuncular, bluff, clever and heroic in equal measure, driven to be a good man for his adopted country and his the children thrust upon him.
The film looks impressive and has its own visual style, with Dickinson and DoP Gordon Dines filling their frames with activity (there are several scenes composed in depth, most obviously in the cafe and at the society party, with a wealth of fore- and background activity to comprehend), and using subtle spatial tricks (the post-party Maria walking 'from' her darkened room into her memory of the garden party in one smooth shot) to highlight shifts in tone. There are also strong visual narrative touches which seem unusual choices at the time - Maria's interrogation by the London 'committee' of the organisation takes place in a darkened room, where she can only hear voices and see their shoes - but which pay off well in the final ten minutes when a distinctive voice and pair of shoes return.
But with all that, the film struggles to maintain narrative or tonal coherence, particularly towards the end: the final scenes, where Maria becomes Lena, moves to Ireland, sees Nora perform, realises the organisation is back, confronts Louis again, speed past and undo much of the earlier, steady work building up these characters and situations. I'm loathe to cry censorship again, despite talk of the UK Communist party disrupting public screenings and Ealing trimming what they saw as a difficult film (the BBFC website shows a 95 minute 55 second run time passed in August 1951, which matches up with the DVD) but the rush to conclude the narrative feels just that: rushed.
Fascinating yet frustrating, the film remains a curio if only to see what Dickinson and Ealing might have produced together, after their earlier success with The Next of Kin (1943).
[Secret People is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]
Next time, Ealing's most blatant war propaganda in The Big Blockade (1942)...
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston