Congruence #2: Entrances





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.

UK shoppers: The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (20th Anniversary Edition) [DVD] [1988]


31 Responses to “Congruence #2: Entrances”

  1. And the similar shot in Throw Momma from the Train where, I think, a bedroom segues into a classroom is the only thing I really remember about that film, but there it was simply used as a showy scene change, there was no slip between realities.

  2. Interesting.

    I’d love to see SECRET PEOPLE. I’m crazy about Thorold Dickinson on the basis of THE QUEEN OF SPADES alone.

    Lindsay Anderson wrote a making-of book about SECRET PEOPLE, is that still in print?

    Terry Gilliam might have seen SECRET PEOPLE for all we know. A more likely influence for BARON MUNCHAUSEN is perhaps the Alexander Korda THE THIEF OF BAGDAD which similarly has this very intricate flashback structure and he is on record as a fan of the film. But then since it moves from stage reality to cinematic reality he might have just as easily been influenced by LA RONDE, a staple of arthouse movies or Renoir’s THE GOLDEN COACH which opens and closes on stage but stage reality is expanded.

  3. By the way, I’m quite sure there is a subtle cut in the swim-back-in-time transition at the beginning of COLONEL BLIMP. It’s also impractical as the strain it would exert to instantaneously de-age Roger Livesey of the fat and the bald pate would be too much in the limited time-frame of a jutting forward movement of a camera.

  4. It’s the specific idea of panning from one reality to another… quite rare.

    Danny DeVito uses lots of interesting visual ideas in his films, but they often seem indulgent or unnecessary. I’d rather watch him than most of his contemporaries though, because ideas are, even if misapplied, nice things to have.

    The Anderson book is out of print and quite expensive. If anybody sees an affordable copy they should snap it up. I might try the libraries, now that I’ve seen the film I’m definitely intrigued. Recently saw Gaslight for the first time (great) and have Next of Kin and The Arsenal Stadium Mystery lined up. Queen of Spades is a masterpiece.

  5. I liked The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. It’s a lovely piece of nostalgia. I haven’t seen it in years.

  6. Ahah — in Blimp, the guy who plays Winn-Candy in long shot is a stand-in throughout. They didn’t build a prosthetic belly for Livesey, they just used a real fat man. Throughout his career Powell used stand-ins in a very bold way — for instance, Livesey never went to Scotland for I Know Where I’m Going! All his longshots in the scenery are a double.

    So — in Blimp, the stand-in jumps into the pool, and the real Livesey emerges. That’s why the shot takes so long (I find it a bit awkward, but the idea is excellent).

  7. Valentina Cortese deserves a “Shadowplay” tribute all to herself. In films as diverse as The House on Telegraph Hill, Juliet of the Spirits, Day For Night and of course Gilliam’s Munchhausen she’s a unique presence. She is still with us, and lively as ever though confined to a wheelchair. A friend of mine who lives in Italy met her on a train and she had him to dinner at her home — with white-gloved servants all round.

  8. Recently enjoyed her in Dieterle’s Dark City. And she’s very funny in Day for Night. I once followed a Fellini lecture with a Truffaut lecture, and her line “Can’t I just say numbers, like with Federico?” got a big laugh.

  9. I can sit for hours watching the DVD menu loop of Dickinson’s QUEEN OF SPADES.

  10. Oh, you have the Kino DVD? I don’t, alas.

  11. Also deserving of mention is her perforance in Dassin’s masterpiece, THIEVES HIGHWAY opposite Richard Conte. A rare noir film where the straight-arrow good guy falls in love with the girl on the other side of the tracks and walks away with her. Though of course this happens after his prim and proper girlfriend dumps him. But Progressive is as progressive does.

    She also appeared in a Rossellini movie, though I can’t remember which.

    I’m pretty sure there was a cut in BLIMP in that scene.

    According to the commentary they only used a stand-in for the opening scene where the Blimp is sprawled on the massage table, the close-ups and the rest is entirely Livesey in fat make-up.

  12. Isn’t there an overhead shot in the Terence Davies film ‘The House of Mirth’ where a stream in a garden is slowly transformed into the Mediterranean or is my memory playing tricks?

  13. Sounds plausible, but I’ve yet to see it.

    Right, I’m getting my Blimp DVD out…

  14. First, that’s definitely a stand-in charging the young officer. (I suspect the commentary meant this is the only scene with a stand-in). And that’s real flesh on Blimp’s body when they go into the pool, no way it’s makeup. And Livesey’s dialogue is all too obviously dubbed on during the pool fight, suggesting that it’s a stand-in.

    Then, when the figures fall out of shot, there’s no way to hid a cut — the camera is in motion, the water is rippling, both of which would be impossible to match with 1940s technology.

    Then there’s an incredibly clunky cut, but only after he gets out the pool.

  15. No it isn’t, but Davies uses lap dissolves in that scene along with a bit of music from W. A. Mozart(Cos Fan Tutte) to achieve the effect. It’s closer to the use of super-impositions in Apocalypse Now or the kind that Amos Gitai uses in FREE ZONE, though not as extensive as the latter where Gitai super-imposes two flashbacks simultaneously on a scene in the present and lets the soundtrack incorporate all three separate actions.

  16. Touché!

  17. Or actually the transition through the water and the travel to the Mediterranean may have come from L’HISTOIRE DE ADELE H. by Truffaut where letters are sent from Victor Hugo and his family to his daughter across the sea through transitions across water. Don’t know if Davies has seen that film or much of Truffaut?

  18. Used to great effect in The House of Mirth, Sunday Bloody Sunday and A Home at the End of the World

  19. Here we see Valentina admonishing the future director of Away From Her:

  20. david wingrove Says:

    Valentina Cortese is indeed an amazing lady – not least for the sheer length of time her career has kept going.

    Believe it or not, I have an old VHS of an Alessandro Blasetti costume epic from 1941 – LA CENA DELLE BEFFE (THE DINNER OF JOKES). The stars are Osvaldo Valenti and Luisa Ferida, the “Golden Couple” of the Mussolini era, both shot by partisans for their deeply nasty role in the Republic of Salo.

    The young ingenue, meanwhile is…a heartbreakingly gorgeous 17-year-old Valentina Cortese. Given the ghastly people the poor girl had rub shoulders with in her youth, I’m glad she’s enjoying a stylish and comfy retirement – white-gloved servants and all! The lady has more than earned it.

  21. What an amazing life she’s led.

    I’d imagine Terence Davies has seen plenty of Truffaut: a film-lover of his age would be bound to have encountered those movies, although I know he grew up on MGM musicals. But the beauty of it is, you can have both!

  22. In ‘My Life in Movies’ Powell says that, despite his decision to use a body double for the pool scene, the art department insisted on going ahead and constructing a fat suit for Roger Livesey. “Goodness knows how many man-hours were wasted upon this idea, which may have appeared once on screen.” (When?)

    The matching of the body double with Livesey’s head “came down to acting, as it always will do. In some magical way, Roger was able to blow up his face, heighten his colour and put plastics inside his mouth, until he looked like a streaming volcano ready to explode.”

  23. I’m not sure where that fat suit might be seen. My guess is it didn’t end up being featured at all.

    I have a feeling the pan-into-flashback has been used with CGI transitions in recent movies, but can’t remember any specific examples. And there’s a 360 pan through time in DePalma’s Obsession, I seem to recall.

  24. Christopher Says:

    in Olsen and Johnson’s Crazy House,which is about as easy to pin down as a terry gilliam cartoon,theres a scene where they’re walking and talking with a movie studio exec in and out of various sound stages where productions are in progress.Each time they enter a new Set,they are dressed in the period costume of the film thats being shot.

  25. That’s beautiful, Christopher, especially as it suggests another congruence — from Olsen and Johnson to Peter Greenaway, as in The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover the characters’ costumes change colour as they pass from room to room, so that they’re always perfectly coordinated.

    Hellzapoppin is the only O&J film I’ve seen thus far, but it sounds like the others are almost as nuts!

  26. Christopher Says:

    my mistake!..Its Hellzapoppin the scene occurs in..Crazy House is set at the studio also and has as tons of star cameos,such as the Rathbone and Bruce,”I’m Sherlock Holmes,I know eveything”bit..Its a crime these films haven’t come to DVD yet!…They surpass even the Marx Bros. for sheer lunacy..

  27. I hadn’t realised that Joyce Cary, a writer some of whose work I am very fond of, was involved in Dickinson’s Secret People.

  28. It’s a vaguely Graham Greene-like piece, a glum espionage yarn, quite compelling, and of course extremely well made by TD, who seems to have collaborated with Cary a few times.

  29. Antonioni did something like it, in The Passenger. If I remember correctly, we see Jack Nicholson listening to a tape recording of a conversation, then the camera pans to a balcony and we see Jack having that conversation.

  30. I think you’re right. That movie exploits long takes to kind of dissolve time and space rather than preserve their unity in a Bazinian sense, as with the famous last shot.

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