A kind Shadowplayer sent me a copy of Thorold Dickinson’s SECRET PEOPLE, which features the first major performance by Audrey Hepburn, so always gets a sort of footnote position in the history books, but deserves better. A rather downbeat tale of terrorism and espionage, it stars Valentina Cortese as Hepburn’s big sister, lured into an assassination plot by her lover, Serge Reggiani. The film has an unusual narrative, perhaps not entirely successful in its jumps and re-starts, but intriguing to watch. The biggest narrative surprise is when the bomb plot is set in motion, and Dickinson then cuts to the aftermath. Reggiani, like the audience, is desperate to know what happened.
Cortese. standing at the window of her London flat, begins to tell him.
As she talks, she moves left —
— and walks into the flashback she just started to narrate.
It’s a startling transition, and all the more striking when you imagine how it must have been shot. Dickinson would have had the bedroom set constructed next to the terrace where the party is unfolding, a dreamlike conjunction of entirely separate places.
There are a few uses of this kind of technique elsewhere in cinema. Dickinson might conceivably have been influenced by the moment in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP where Roger Livesey swims back in time forty years in a single continuous shot. But it just occurred to me that he would have made a point of seeing LA RONDE, since it stars Anton Walbrook, directed by Dickinson in two of his best perfs (GASLIGHT, THE QUEEN OF SPADES). And in the five-minute opening shot of LA RONDE, Walbrook walks from a nocturnal Viennese street onto a theatre stage somehow erected in the midst of it, back onto the street, which then becomes a movie studio, then a street again, then daylight, then night again…
And then there’s this moment in THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, where the Baron begins to narrate his tall tale from the stage of a theatre. He speaks of the Turkish court and its seraglio. Gilliam cuts to an actor playing the Great Turk being shepherded onto the stage —
But as he enters, we find it’s a real Turkish harem, and the actor is now therefor a real Great Turk. We’re inside Munchausen’s tale, having not just moved back in time, but into a slightly more slippery form of reality, the lie-truth of a Munchausen memory, and again we’ve done it without a cut or dissolve.
The effect, like the film, is somewhat Felliniesque, but Gilliam’s trick shot does feel akin to Dickinson’s, and it’s thus interesting to note that both SECRET PEOPLE and MUNCHAUSEN feature Valentina Cortese, who for Gilliam plays the Queen of the Moon (a giantess with a detachable head). Did Gilliam check out some of her earlier work and get inspired?
Thanks to Susan VandenBergh for SECRET PEOPLE.