Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People

Though little known in the U.S. today except by movie buffs, Thorold Dickinson is an important figure in the development of the British film industry. A screenwriter, editor, director and producer, Dickinson wore many hats and exerted considerable influence in his various positions over the years as Coordinator of the Army Kinematograph Service’s film unit, Professor of Film at the Slade School of Fine Art and Chief of Film Services at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). In addition to collaborating with other British filmmakers on their work and co-directing several features, he rose to prominence on the basis of a small but impressive filmography. Among them were the commercial hits, Gaslight (1940), remade in 1944 in Hollywood with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and The Queen of Spades (1949), an adaptation of the Alexander Pushkin short story which is considered possibly the best of its many film versions. His skill as a documentarian was equally renowned and The Next of Kin, a military training film he made for the War Office in 1940, was so effective it was given a theatrical release. Men of Two Worlds (1946), a semi-documentary collaboration between the Ministry of Information and the Colonial Office, was co-scripted with novelist Joyce Cary (The Horse’s Mouth, 1958) and focused on the problem and treatment of sleeping sickness in African tribes. Yet, the most ambitious film of Dickinson’s career – and the one that almost ended it was Secret People (1952), which was an examination of the terrorist mindset and years ahead of its time. 

According to author Jeffrey Richards in Thorold Dickinson and the British Cinema, The Secret People was intended as Dickinson’s “great bid to make a film of ideas for discriminating audiences, an ‘art house’ film for Britain, that would equal the European standard that he so much admired and point British cinema in a different direction from slavish imitation of Hollywood.” The idea for the storyline had been germinating for years, ever since Dickinson first heard a true story from a policeman while doing research in Liverpool for The Next of Kin in 1939; a married woman and active IRA member decides to inform on her own group in order to stop an assassination attempt. Dickinson, working at first with Joyce Cary on a story idea, would return to it again and again, reworking it for the screen in between his other movie projects.

When the screenplay, with contributions from Dickinson, Cary and Wolfgang Wilhelm, was finally completed, it told the story of two refugee sisters, Maria and Nora, who are adopted by an Italian restaurant owner in London after escaping from a dictatorship (which is not identified by country but most likely Fascist Italy) which was responsible for their father’s death. When Maria’s former lover, Louis, arrives for a visit, he persuades her to join a terrorist plot to assassinate the dictator with a bomb, a plan that goes horribly wrong.

Audrey Hepburn had her first substantial role in the 1952 British thriller SECRET PEOPLE and would become an international star the following year in ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953).

When Dickinson’s planned film version of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was cancelled for budgetary reasons in 1950, he decided the time was right to approach Sir Michael Balcon, head of Ealing Studios, about producing Secret People. Balcon agreed, later remarking, “All too often he [Dickinson] had been given scripts not of his own choosing, scripts not worthy of his great ability. In Secret People he at last had a script of his own making, something essentially of the cinema and not adapted from a novel or a play, something in which both emotionally and intellectually he was very much involved; in fact a subject to which he could bring full enthusiasm as well as his usual skill. It seemed to me it would be a tragic loss if he were not able to go ahead.”

Valentina Cortese and Serge Reggiani star in Thorold Dickinson’s overlooked and underrated 1952 thriller SECRET PEOPLE.

For the casting, Dickinson selected Valentina Cortese for the central role of Maria and Serge Reggiani as Louis, the anarchist who instigates the terrible events that follow. Cortese was an excellent Italian actress who had been working in Hollywood with little success, and Reggiani was a French actor who had many great roles to his credit, including Marcel Ophuls’ La Ronde (1950) and Marcel Carne’s Les Portes de la Nuit (1946). The rest of the supporting cast was filled out with such British film veterans as Charles Goldner, Megs Jenkins, Reginald Tate, Geoffrey Hibbert, and in her first important screen role, Audrey Hepburn, as Nora, Maria’s younger sister.

Film noir lighting transforms an innocent kiss into something sinister in the 1952 thriller about a terrorist organization in London, SECRET PEOPLE.

Secret People began shooting on March 15, 1951 and lasted eleven weeks. Due to budget cuts, location filming in Paris was abandoned and the number of scenes to be shot in Dublin were drastically reduced. With Dickinson’s approval, the entire production process was chronicled by film student and aspiring critic Lindsay Anderson in his book, Making a Film: The Story of Secret People; it was one of the first books to detail the nuts and bolts of moviemaking for aspiring British filmmakers and quite insightful concerning Dickinson’s methods as well.

Maria (Valentina Cortese) pays a visit to Inspector Eliot (Reginald Tate) in the 1952 British thriller SECRET PEOPLE.

Here is an example of Anderson’s reportage: “We move in to a close two-shot, and Audrey consults Thorold. ‘I just can’t seem to say this line right…How should I say it?’ ‘Don’t bother about how you’re going to say it. Just think of the experience that lies behind the words. During the war, perhaps you saw something like that [an explosion] – not the same, of course, but the equivalent. Get the feeling right, and the words will look after themselves.’ So while the stand-ins are being lit, Audrey sits by herself in a corner, thinking back. By the time we come to the take, the words have become spontaneous (heartfelt); and tears come naturally to her eyes.”

Audrey Hepburn and co-star Michael Allan fool around on the set of SECRET PEOPLE (1952).

Dickinson was delighted with the finished film and premiered it at the Odeon in Leicester Square. Not only were there protestors present who considered Secret People an attack on the left but the critics were particularly negative in their reviews. The Daily Herald reported, “It was all such an embarrassing mixture of pretentiousness and naivety I felt ashamed and wanted to look away.” The Spectator called it “the most boring film I have ever seen in my life,” while The Evening Standard proclaimed it “a mausoleum of good intentions.” Slightly less condemnatory were C.A. Lejeune’s review for the Observer – “muddled, inadequate and often inaudible” – and The News Chronicle which stated, “That Secret People, after all the creative agonies recorded by Mr. Anderson, should turn out to be a confused spy thriller concealing a tentative message deep down below some strained effects of style is another tragedy of British film hopes.”

In many ways, Secret People shared similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), which was based on Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Agent” and also dealt with extremist politics and the dilemma of conscience over ideology. Dickinson and his colleagues had even previewed Sabotage before filming their own movie and both films share similar plot points: an innocent woman implicated in a terrorist act, an underground ring of subversives operating in London, a bombing that results in the death of a young boy. Sabotage had equally alienated many filmgoers upon its original release due to the depiction of a child’s death. Secret People‘s poor reception in England could also partly be explained by the fact that political and social issue films were rarely successful there, a situation that began to change in the late fifties.

A mysterious meeting between two sisters, Maria (Valentina Cortese, left) and Nora (Audrey Hepburn), and Louis (Serge Reggiani), who may be a terrorist in SECRET PEOPLE (1952).

Dickinson was deeply wounded by the film’s poor reception and later said, “We never disguised the fact that Secret People was what you would call an art house subject, not for the general public so much as for a smaller audience. That was why we cast two players, one from Italy, one from France, both firmly established in their own countries, so that we could have an entry into both these markets; it wasn’t supposed to be a film that would get all its money back here. But when the film failed in England, they didn’t in fact try to sell it in Europe at all.”

Screenwriter/director Thorold Dickinson

Several critics were impressed by Cortese’s committed performance and Audrey Hepburn also made a favorable impression. In fact, she had already been noticed in some small parts in British comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Young Wives’ Tale (1951) but Hepburn became an international star with her next movie, Roman Holiday (1953), and also won the Best Actress Oscar for her first leading role.

In recent years, Secret People has been reassessed by some critics and clearly does not deserve its reputation as an artistic disaster. One of the movie’s fans, director Martin Scorsese, does admit that the casting of Serge Reggiani was a chief weakness because “it’s clear that he didn’t really understand English so well at the time, and that he didn’t have such a firm grasp of the material.” However, he applauds the movie’s difficult and complex theme: “…whenever there’s a conflict, there’s going to be ruthlessness on both sides, so it’s not realistic to imagine that your people have cleaner hands than the enemy. The issue is particularly germane right now, and it’s what made Munich such a controversial picture. It was very brave of Dickinson to make a film about that subject at that time, when the Resistance was so revered, and I’m sure he knew his point of view wasn’t going to win him any friends.” In terms of key moments in the film, Scorsese also commented, “The staging of Cortese’s memory of the bomb blast is one of the finest things Dickinson ever did and one of the high points of British cinema. Every time I see it I get hooked by it.”

After the failure of Secret People, Dickinson quickly involved himself in a new project which he pitched to Rank Studios and was approved. Although he was eventually fired from the movie, which was released as Malta Story (1953), it was his story concept that was adapted into a working screenplay by Nigel Balchin.

After this, he was recruited by the Israeli Defense Ministry to make The Red Ground, a short propaganda film, and followed it up with an Israeli feature film shot in English, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955). It was a return to subject matter he knew intimately – war – and it was a critical success, winning a nomination for the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival. It would mark his final film as a director.

Secret People is not currently available on any format in the U.S. but if you own an all-region Blu-ray player, you can purchase the PAL Blu-ray edition released by Network in May 2019 from sellers in the U.K. The only additional features are the theatrical trailer and an image gallery but the film is a High Definition transfer in its original theatrical aspect ratio.

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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