Our Secret

I promised to update you on Making a Film: The Story of Secret People by Lindsay Anderson. Reader, I finished it. It’s a really great behind-the-scenes book, and it doesn’t matter that the film it deals with is fairly obscure. Anderson is a genial host — which isn’t like him, I know — taking us through the development, pre-production and filming of Thorold Dickinson’s film, but isn’t able to cover all the postproduction. This means he misses Dickinson filming Audrey Hepburn’s audition for ROMAN HOLIDAY, the movie which turned her into a star. Dickinson, at RH director William Wyler’s suggestion, interviewed Audrey after she’d finished the acting part, and it was her natural charm when chatting to her former director that got her the big break.

But Anderson DOES cover her audition for SECRET PEOPLE, in which she has a much smaller role, playing Valentina Cortese’s sister, Nora…

February 23rd. Audrey Hepburn’s test. After the first run-through people start eyeing each other meaningfully: she has the quality all right. After another rehearsal it almost seems a waste of time to shoot the test.

February 26th. Audrey Hepburn is Nora.

Here’s the extant bit of the later ROMAN HOLIDAY test:

One thing I was hoping to find out was the story behind the film’s most striking moment, imho. It’s the main thing I wrote about here when I first watched the film. A key event in the film is skipped over in its chronology, and then covered in a flashback. Dickinson does something really extraordinary here: he starts behind Cortese, then pans with her as she crosses the small room she’s in, describing the incident we missed. But as she passes the camera, she steps INTO the events she’s describing. Her back is now to us again, and her voices continues as she moves into the flashback, now part of the scene, her dialogue now a voice-over.

This is so far outside the Overton window of what was stylistically acceptable in a fifties film, in conservative Britain of all places, that it’s amazing Dickinson could get away with such an avant-garde move at Ealing. Admittedly, there are earlier examples of filmmakers traveling into flashback without the aid of a cut or dissolve. In CARAVAN, Erik Charrell, a king of the long take, pans in and out of a short flashback scene. I imagine Max Ophuls may have noticed this, because much later he pulled similar stunts in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D… and LA RONDE, which may be what gave Dickinson the idea. But then there IS a British example, though not as recent: Michael Powell cranes into the past, traveling forty years in a single, somewhat unsteady glide over a swimbath in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP.

Unfortunately, Anderson is silent on the development of Dickinson’s version of this idea — perhaps Dickinson protected his experiment by talking about it as little as possible. Once it turned up in the rushes, undoing it would be expensive.

However, there is a clue in Anderson’s book. Modestly budgeted, SECRET PEOPLE was forced to compromise several times on its use of locations. At the start of prep, shooting was planned for Paris and Dublin, and this got scaled back progressively for financial reasons until it no longer made sense to travel outside London at all. And the garden party that Cortese walks into was originally supposed to be a park location. This meant being weather-dependent and for various reasons pressure was brought to bear to shoot it in the studio. When Dickinson finally relented, he realised a short while later that a park was unlikely to look convincing and a garden party at some upscale residence would be much more containable, you could have walls on two sides, and you could save money AND get a result with more veracity.

I think Dickinson was probably, at first, disappointed at losing a location shoot, and then tried to find a way to make the studio set cinematically better and more exciting than the original plan, to get over his disappointment. Obviously, panning from a character’s flat into a geographically unconnected garden party in an unbroken take was the sort of trick that wouldn’t have been possible if filming in a park. What I’d love to know is what the joiners thought of the demand to create a composite set. I bet they were super into it, though.

6 Responses to “Our Secret”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Audrey is completely outside of Lindsay’s wheelhouse The girl for him is Helen Mirren — who is astonishing in “O. Lucky Man!”

  2. I wish you would comment on the movie supernova, a film directed by Walter Hil. Hill used a pseudonym when it came to listing the Director.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernova_(2000_film)

    Bryce

  3. I plan to see Supernova at some point. If memory serves, Hill was taking over direction from somebody else and wanted to be Alan Smithee or the equivalent, but that pseudonym had been outed and it was feared that an anonymous or pseudonymous director would be bad publicity. Nevertheless, everyone heard that Hill wanted to be unnamed.

  4. I suspect Anderson’s favourite leading lady was Lillian Gish. The same could not be said of Bette Davis.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    “Beauties of the Night” (1952) used pans to move the composer hero into his period fantasies, although that was a bit simpler and almost literal-minded in simulating the drift from consciousness.

  6. Lovely, though! I’d forgotten that, but it’s one of my favourite Rene Clair films.

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