Archive for Secret People

You can keep your hat on

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 11, 2021 by dcairns

One more terrific bit from Lindsay Anderson’s Making a Film book about Thorold Dickinson’s SECRET PEOPLE. Amusing in itself, it also shows that British filmmakers were particularly keen to understand and work within the strictures of American censorship, since the USA was such a huge and important market. Perhaps surprisingly, the British took a more adult and forgiving view of sexual matters, but they had to tighten things up if they wanted American distribution. They’re filming a scene in which Valentina Cortese is in the London flat of Serge Reggiani. The purpose is to plot a bombing, but since Cortese’s character is in love with Reggiani’s, sex also raises its head in a simple shot at the window, filmed on location so as to take in a realistic view of a railway station below.

“From the start, we are menaced by censorship,” writes Anderson. “‘As it is written, the scene has the flavour of an illicit sex affair,’ the American censor has commented. ‘The scene should not end with the characters sitting on a couch or in any kind of an embrace that would suggest an approximate sex affair.’ ‘Is it too close to approximate sex if Louis [Reggiani] closes the window?’ Thorold queries. Phyll [script supervisor Phyllis Crocker] has the answer: ‘It’s all right if she keeps her hat on.'”

I think, in fact, the British were keep to suggest the flavour of sex, but without doing anything that could be picked on by the official bluenoses across the pond.

“But for Louis to close the window is more easily suggested than done. The frame is warped, and Serge must heave and strain before it will budge. Then there are the trains: if they are coming out of the station, they pass out of the sunlight, and so are not prominent enough in shot: and if they are speeding into the station, they are putting out none of that photogenic white smoke. Add to this the chance the chancy timing of entrances and dialogue, and you have all the ingredients of a hysterical hour and a half. Thorold cranes from the window, watching for an approaching express. ‘Positions!’ The train comes nearer. ‘Action!’ The artists walk into shot, speak, and the train passes uselessly by in the background-shadow. The second time, Serge finds the window immovable; in what the Breen Office would no doubt imagine to be an ecstasy of erotic impatience, he hoists from the ground in his efforts to move it. ‘Props!’ On the third take, the train mysteriously fails to appear: on the fifth, what we took to be an express turns out merely a single, comically tubby shunter. This is too much for Valentina, who collapses in the middle of the take, helpless with laughter. ‘Darling, I am so sorry … I apologise …’ (These are Valentina’s favourite syllables, spoken with such acuteness of self-reproach that they never fail to enchant.) ‘I know there’s an express arriving at 1.14,’ says Thorold, ‘because I used to travel up by it.’ But in the end we are here until 1.35, leaving off with a score of nine takes, two possibles.”

Serge Regginai’s lack of muscular vigour reminds me of someone or other describing him in the documentary HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO, as resembling a parsnip, with his bit squarish/cylindrical head and his body tapering off into a mere spindle. Still, he emerges from Anderson’s book as immensely appealing, dedicated, intelligent, and nervous.

Our Secret

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 10, 2021 by dcairns

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.

Congruence #2: Entrances

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2009 by dcairns

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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…

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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?

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Thanks to Susan VandenBergh for SECRET PEOPLE.

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