The Secret People (1952)
Cast: Valentina Cortese (Maria Brentano), Audrey Hepburn (Nora), Serge Reggiani (Louis), Michael Allan (Rodd), John Field (Fedor Luki), Angela Fouldes (Nora as a child), Charles Goldner (Anselmo).
Crew: Director: Thorold Dickinson. Producer: Sidney Cole. Screenplay: Thorold Dickinson and Wolfgang Wilhelm, based on a story by Thorold Dickinson and Joyce Cary. Cinematography: Gordon Dines. Filmed in England. UK. 98 minutes.
Story: A thriller set in pre-Second World War London, sees two sisters, Maria (Valentina Cortese) and Nora (Audrey Hepburn), struggling to find peace in England following their escape from Europe. They had to leave an unknown European country after their father, a pacifist, became the target of a political assassination. Despite a new start, a few years pass, and their past catches up with them. When Louis (Serge Reggiani), Maria's former fiancé, turns up, violence and tyranny surrounds them once again. Louis is now the leader of a group of ruthless saboteurs involved in a plot to assassinate a German dignitary. Maria abandons her father's political ideals and becomes a violent revolutionary, fighting alongside Louis. Nora, now a teenager and aspiring ballerina, is flattered by the handsome Louis who draws her into his sinister world. Once Maria realises the danger she has put Nora in, Maria finally turns on her compatriots and becomes a police informer in order to protect her sister.
Background: Audrey was cast principally for her ballet experience, but the small, pivotal role had many echoes of her own experiences – playing the heroine's sister, she is a dancer who is traumatised by the memories of a bomb explosion where many people where killed. Audrey's own experiences of living in Occupied Arnheim and her training with the Rambert Ballet Company made this a perfect transitional film for her. It was her first drama and through it she showed more acting ability than she had previously displayed. The shoot was hard work, as she had to spend much of the film in scantily clad ballet costumes, in freezing cold conditions at the famous (but now very run-down) Bedford Theatre in London’s Camden Town which was doubling for Dublin Opera House. Rehearsals and filming of the ballet sequences were completed over nine days. Only four minutes of footage appears in the final cut.
The Secret People had been in development for four years. Initially, Associated British were financing the project but became scared of the film's subject matter and, considering it too political, too intellectual, too downbeat – pulled the plug. Michael Balcon at Ealing was looking for more serious films as a way of increasing the studios respectability - fearing that their stable of lightweight comedies would adversely pigeon-hole the studios. In hindsight, he couldn't have been more wrong. It is the comedies: The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico et al, that have maintained an enduring presence in the heart of British cinemagoers. Their attempts at tackling serious subject matters have been assigned to the top shelves.
The production office for The Secret People was next to the sets for The Lavender Hill Mob. Lindsay Anderson, who was working on the film, recalls the ambitious Audrey popping into the office to enquire if there was any roles for her. Simultaneously, director Thorold Dickinson had spotted Audrey in the chorus of Sauce Piquante and had already made a note of her striking looks and personality. He thought that she’d be perfect for Nora, but was worried by her height when compared to the film's lead Valentina Cortese, playing the older sister. Valentina took an instant liking to Audrey and between them they devised a way of fooling Dickinson. Audrey did the screen test with bare feet and Valentina walked on tiptoe.
Shooting began in February 1951 but it wasn't released until the following February by which point Audrey had already starred with tremendous success on Broadway in Gigi and had already completed filming Roman Holiday. The film was poorly received in England, and was not released in America for several years, by which point Audrey was a major Hollywood star and Oscar winner, and the film's limited release could cause her no harm now. Audiences were a bit surprised by her limited screen time.