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Re-discovering Thorold Dickinson

Film historian James Leahy provides a personal view of three of the films made by the educator and film director Thorold Dickinson which are now available on DVD.

About the author: James Leahy is a screenwriter and film historian and has worked with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen (he co-wrote 1871, an official selection at Cannes in 1990) and Med Hondo. His writings on cinema have appeared in The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma in English, PIX and he was one of the founding editors of Vertigo magazine . His detailed analysis of the life and work of Jean Renoir for Senses of Cinema can be read online at


Thorold Dickinson, on the right, directing Queen of Spades (image © STUDIOCANAL)

Thorold Dickinson (1903-1984) was a passionate supporter of BUFVC (or the BUFC as it then was). Not only did he speak regularly at the Council’s conferences but, when necessary, he lobbied to protect the organisation’s independence and its independent grant. He had a vision of the contribution film could and should make, not only to academic work, but within culture as a whole, and BUFVC contributed to that vision. Indeed, in its concern with the interaction of the disciplines of film and history, the Council was following in his pioneering footsteps. Dickinson felt our culture was essentially illiterate cinematically. This was certainly the case then. Things have changed now, but how radically I’m not sure. Thus he saw as a priority the generation of a wider and deeper understanding of how a film articulates its meanings, and greater sensitivity to those meanings. One of his accounts of the early days of World War II surges up from my memory: how he and colleagues needed to educate senior military officers to make them aware of the artificiality of filmic accounts of German military victories in films such as Feuertaufe (Baptism of Fire) from 1940, about the campaign in Poland. It was the filmic rhetoric (largely generated in the editing, a skill in which Thorold was a master) that pushed these soldiers close to despair, just as, for a filmmaker, it was this rhetoric that revealed the film’s distance from being a realistic or documentary account as this would be understood by British filmmakers.

Thorold Dickinson was one of the most ambitious and skilled directors working in British film production during the thirties, forties and fifties

Thorold Dickinson was one of the most ambitious and skilled directors working in British film production during the thirties, forties and fifties, the era of classic cinema, yet his name and his work are hardly known today. Indeed, newspaper headlines suggest his work had been forgotten over a quarter century ago, when he died. Nevertheless, his art has been hailed by such leading modern filmmakers as John Boorman (‘He had Michael Powell’s daring, David Lean’s taut editing, and Carol Reed’s emotional tension’) and Martin Scorsese (‘a uniquely intelligent and passionate artist’). Thus, the appearance of three of his films – The High Command (1937), The Queen of Spades (1949) and Secret People (1952) – on DVD from STUDIOCANAL (previously known as Optimum) is particularly welcome.

The video release of The High Command was delayed in production when Philip Horne, who has done so much to revive a sustained interest in Thorold’s work (through a National Film Theatre retrospective, articles in Sight and Sound, and the book Thorold Dickinson: a World of Film), discovered ten minutes were missing from the transfer to DVD and had to be rectified. Thus I have not had access to a review copy.

Philip Horne contributes an insightful and informative analysis as an extra on each of the three DVDs, and The Queen of Spades also has an introduction by Martin Scorsese, who describes it as ‘one of the few real classics of supernatural cinema’. This DVD also has extracts from two audio interviews with Thorold himself, and two trailers, including the one for the original release. To emphasise my belief that experience should precede analysis, I would strongly suggest that those who do not know the films ignore all these extras until they have watched the film at least once.

Both Scorsese and Horne rate The Queen of Spades and his 1940 version of Gaslight (which is not yet available on DVD in this country) as Dickinson’s two masterpieces, and clearly he left his creative mark on both, but I feel that Secret People (available here in a top quality print) is a far greater film in both ambition and achievement. Certainly it reveals Thorold’s commitment to what he felt and argued was the potential of modern cinema, in which,

… selection, emphasis and timing … had become an asset of the shooting process… This is what Renoir had been working towards with the limited equipment at his call: to show action (including speech) and reaction at one and the same time in the same set-up and to make the cut a perceptible, positive act.

Thus the director had become again ‘the dominant personality’ in the production process, ‘the film-maker’ (all quotes from Dickinson’s 1971 book, A Discovery of Cinema).

Anton Walbrook in Queen of Spades (image © STUDIOCANAL)

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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