The Secret People (1952) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Secret People (1952)

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Danny INDIFFERENTIt's the second week of my Audrey Hepburn project; last week in One Wild Oat, Hepburn was in it for barely for just a scene, but this week we get her no less than third billed.

Starring as the younger sister of a pair of orphans, Hepburn is a bubbly and energetic presence as a dancer who lives blithely while her sister is seduced into a world of murder and manipulation that threatens to destroy her whole family.

Cheery stuff, huh? The Secret People seems to take most of its pages from the Alfred Hitchcock playbook, though lacking the wit and sympathy you would expect from such an endeavor.

The hero of this piece is Marie. Her father, a famous author, is killed in a revolt in their home country (never named, but obviously Italy). She and her sister, Nora, are sent to London to live with his old friend. Marie grows up over the course of seven years working in his Italian restaurant while her sister becomes a ballerina. Marie is proud of her sister, and happy that Nora's career is beginning to flourish. Without having to worry about taking care of Nora, Marie can finally pursue a career of writing just like her father did.

Marie still shudders when she sees so much as a mention of the name of the dictator who ordered her father killed, General Galbern (not, not Mussolini). To help celebrate his two adopted daughters getting out of the house, their guardian takes them to Paris  for the World's Fair. Of course you can already expect that Galbern will make an appearance, distressing Marie a little bit. What you can't expect is that her old boyfriend, Louis, makes an appearance. (It's okay that you didn't know, I hadn't mentioned him yet.)

Louis isn't there by coincidence as he's part of an international movement to topple Galbern. Marie's sudden appearance ruins the cabal's plans for the fair, but Galbern will soon be in London, and Louis sure wouldn't mind seeing Marie again... Once there, he manipulates it so that Nora will be dancing for Galbern at the embassy's party, and corners Marie. She has to help pass along an explosive during the party or her sister might not make it home in one piece.

What's impressive in this movie, and what contrasts Hitchcock nicely, is how unbelievably dumb Marie acts through most of the film. Every time she's presented with an opportunity to escape her situation or to act in a way that will result in her bargaining her way out (such as when she's taken back to the conspirator's enclave) she instead freezes up in terror with an idiotic look upon her face.

The character is supposed to be conflicted  since she really would desire Galbern's death even though she's horrified by murder, but the screenplay really gives her no scenes of her own to chew on this. Hell, most of the time she isn't even allowed to think; instead she's to look on in horror as both sides of the conflict, the assassins and Scotland Yard, toy with her and her family to their content.

Admittedly, it's interesting to see a movie made so soon after the second World War that heavily villainizes a resistance movement. There's enough wiggle room in the concept of the movement presented here that this movie might have been presented in an even manner, but the director paints them as vile murderers, willing to sacrifice anyone, innocent or not, to their cause. That the vile General spends his two scenes smiling and acting fairly pleasant can either illustrate that the writer/director Thorold Dickinson is trying to undermine the audience's expectations or he truly thinks that resistance movements are cabals of amoral villains.

And while it's interesting trying to dissect Dickinson's motives, what's not so nice is that the movie itself gives you plenty of time to think it over during tepid scene after tepid scene. There's no chemistry at all between Marie and Louis, so the romantic interplay that's supposed to be seducing Marie to her doom is nonexistent. Nothing much seems to happen for the first forty-five minutes of the film, then it gets mildly interesting, and then the last half an hour is Marie making one hideously stupid decision after another; if you ever need a reason to shake your fist in impotent rage, this movie is happy to provide plenty.

Hepburn plays a ballerina here which is more than a little close to home for the actress. She grew up taking lessons in a conservatory before she realized that, due to her height and some malnutrition she'd suffered during the war, she would never make it as a prima ballerina and thus began acting. This is the only instance in her career where Hepburn gets to perform her ballet on screen, and while I can't say I'm much of a judge of ballet, she'd get a definite "not bad at all" from me.

And while Hepburn is a bright spot in the film, her character is just as dumb as everyone else here. Seriously, she never asked anyone why there was an explosion that supposedly killed her sister? Never?

The Secret People begins with a crawl insisting that there are "secret people" living inside of all of us, ones who arise whenever bravery is required to show their true selves. For these characters, it appears that not even their secret people have one brain cell to rub against another.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

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The Secret People (1952)

This film (IMDB) is currently available on Region 2 DVD.

Directed by Thorold Dickinson
Starring Valentina Cortese and Audrey Hepburn

The Audrey Hepburn Project:
One Wild Oat (1951)

Posted by Danny

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