British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Re-discovering Thorold Dickinson

Audrey Hepburn in Secret People (image © STUDIOCANAL)

What makes Secret People (shot early in 1951) so daring an experiment is the era in which it was made. Not only was Thorold anticipating the new cinema he was to welcome twenty years later, but, with the Renoir of the 1930s as his only precedent, he demonstrated he was a master of this form. His praise of the ‘ambiguities’ of later films, in which ‘the long flowing scene (in French plan-séquence) with action in foreground and background demanding equal attention’ was praise from someone who had demonstrated his mastery in sequence after sequence. So is his recognition that the ‘balletic flow of action’ of Antonioni’s 1955 release Le Amiche (another film which, scandalously, seems to have gone out of fashion) ‘is itself a source of rare pleasure’.

This reliance on the choreography of camera movement, gesture and human movement to achieve the ‘selection, emphasis and timing’ necessary to generate emotion, meaning and beauty requires courage and faith in ones collaborators. However careful the casting and preparation, the director is setting out on a voyage on uncharted waters, and there can be no turning back. Nick Ray once emphasized to me that a performance cannot be concocted through technical expertise alone, as a result of the editing, or a creative use of sound. The beauties, pleasures and emotional impact of Secret People have a special intensity which is founded upon Thorold’s willingness to go beyond his technical mastery as an editor, and allow his performers to create for him, in the spaces and situations he has created for them. Only when their work is done can he take back obvious control, as he does with, for example, the decision not to sign-post the film’s two flashbacks. It is a decision that gives these two transitions (particularly the second) great beauty and impact. But in 1952 such treatment of a flashback was unprecedented, anticipating the explorations of first Resnais, then Losey in collaboration with Pinter.

All of which leads me to conclude that in aesthetics, as in so many other fields, Thorold was ahead of his time.

James Leahy

The High Command (1937), The Queen of Spades (1949) and Secret People (1952) are now all available on DVD from retail outlets and are distributed by STUDIOCANAL (previously known as Optimum Home Entertainment) –

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