State Secret

Political thrillers can be a bore; long-winded affairs that can be equally long on sanctimony have a tendency to turn me off. For me, anything which is given this designation works best when the political aspects are sidelined as far as possible and the thriller elements are brought unashamedly to the fore. Even better is the film were the politics are of the entirely make-believe variety, serving only as a light frame upon which to drape a tale of intrigue. In 1938 Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat turned out such a screenplay and in the process played a significant role in shaping the success of The Lady Vanishes, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British movies. A dozen years later would see Gilliat both contributing to the script of and directing another British “political” thriller called State Secret (1950) – a neglected piece of hokum which remains highly entertaining.

Middle Europe and non-existent countries (and in this particular case featuring what appears to be a specially created language that is used throughout the film) are the kind of ingredients which effortlessly draw me in. In this case it’s Vosnia, the undisputed realm of one General Niva (Walter Rilla). Frankly, I find it hugely refreshing that there is a deliberate vagueness about the leanings of this dictatorship; whether Niva is a leftist or rightist demagogue is never addressed, and the simple fact is it’s of no relevance whatsoever. When eminent surgeon John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is persuaded to travel to Vosnia to demonstrate his pioneering new technique, it’s not important to know the color of intolerance and repression that holds sway within its borders – both the hero and the viewers are off on a pacy adventure, where the only thing that matters is the threat and not the philosophy supposedly driving it.

So, Marlowe finds himself enjoying the kind of luxurious hospitality only the best totalitarian regimes can offer while he shows off his new procedure and collects what he’s been told is a prestigious award. Naturally, in a movie of this type, the whole scenario  is merely a blind, an elaborate charade designed to conceal the fact Marlowe is actually operating on the seriously ill head of state. Perhaps a wiser man might have considered this possibility, and certainly would have made sure  any suspicions he may have had were kept strictly to himself. But Marlowe isn’t such a man, and of course if he were, we wouldn’t have a film to enjoy. As it is, he makes a point of finding out who his patient is, and then finds that countries like Vosnia have a host of other feature to offer when patients whose identity it really would be better not to know don’t survive the procedure. What follows is a relentless pursuit across an alien landscape as Marlowe, with the initially reluctant assistance of showgirl Lisa (Glynis Johns), tries to elude the urbane but deadly Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) and all the forces at his command.

With location shooting in Italy, State Secret is an attractive looking British thriller, a fast-moving and exciting thriller which owes a debt to the writer/director’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. The concept of the regular guy on the run, pursued across the country by shady types in the employ of a ruthless foe, is a familiar trope. And, in addition, there are scenes, such as the attempt to seek sanctuary in a theater and hide oneself among a crowd as the enemy closes in, all of which recall the likes of The 39 Steps and Saboteur, and also look ahead to North by Northwest and Torn Curtain. Gilliat’s script here is adapted from a novel by Roy Huggins (of The Fugitive fame), which I have yet to track down and read so I can’t say how much derives from that source.

Fairbanks makes for a personable and sympathetic hero in State Secret, making me wish he’d done more of this kind of stuff. His was a rich and varied life and it seems sometimes that acting was only a small part of it all – he’ll probably remain best known, and probably deservedly so, for his roles as the amoral Rupert of Hentzau in the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda and also as a soldier in Gunga Din two years later. Personally, I’d love to be able to see another of his movies, Green Hell, made available at some point as I remember it as being quite a lot of fun. Glynis Johns, daughter of Mervyn Johns, was in the middle of a productive run of work at this point and is an appealing and credible partner for Fairbanks. Jack Hawkins was one of the greats of British cinema; equally at home as either hero or villain, or any variation floating between, he lent class to any film he appeared in and here (bearing in mind the caliber of his co-stars) he consolidates an already distinguished cast. If I had a complaint to make, it would be that we don’t get to see more of Hawkins, and the same could be said for the always accomplished Herbert Lom.

In the same year, Richard Brooks would make the similarly themed Crisis – with Cary Grant finding himself pressured into operating on a dictator and running the attendant risks – but that’s a slower, duller picture that tries harder to make a philosophical point but ends up losing its way as a piece of cinema. State Secret, on the other hand, is upfront about its aims as a piece of entertainment first and foremost and winds up being a better film as a result. Sadly, there don’t appear to be any strong versions of the movie available to buy. I have a Spanish DVD which is just about acceptable in terms of quality, but I couldn’t really endorse it. There’s also an Italian disc on the market and I suspect it’s probably from a comparable source. As such, all I can say is I hope the film gets a release somewhere that does it justice. Anyway, it’s a fine British thriller that is worth keeping one’s eyes open for – and perhaps it will come in for the treatment and attention it deserves.

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28 thoughts on “State Secret

    • It’s something of a puzzle, isn’t it? I can only imagine the lack of an official, spruced up release on disc is down to the rights of the film – in terms of entertainment value and quality, it is up there with, and in many cases streets ahead of, plenty of other British films of the era.
      I’ve seen it on TV a few times over the years and have never been disappointed – just a little bemused about its relatively low profile.

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  1. Must catch it sometime. Sounds good! I’m sure it’s been in TV in the past but can’t recall seeing it. I hate to admit it about a Cary Grant film, but Crisis is dull as you say!

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    • Happy to be able to recommend it.
      Crisis is a real disappointment, in my opinion. The cast, crew and premise all raise expectations but the and product is just a bore and a real slog to get through. And it doesn’t give me any pleasure to say that either.

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  2. Nice choice for an excellent review, Colin.

    I also saw this on TV years ago and enjoyed it. A similar theme (while on the subject matter) appeared a couple of years later in a BBC serial by Francis Durbridge. That must have been successful because a film went straight into production starring Guy Rolfe as an eminent surgeon in “OPERATION DIPLOMAT” (1953). Probably more of a B-movie than “STATE SECRET” but enjoyable nonetheless.

    Fairbanks was rather interesting. He settled in England for a time and during the 50s produced a few films and TV series.

    Any film benefitted from the presence of Jack Hawkins, as you say. He hadn’t reached top stardom yet in 1950.

    I too wish a release on DVD would appear.

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    • I have a copy of Operation Diplomat somewhere so I’ll have to try to dig that out when I get a chance and see how it looks. Gillliat’s movie had some money spent on it and the production values do show.

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  3. From your review, it appears to be entertaining and will look it up. Off topic, Torn Curtain was quite a disappointment, especially from Alfred. Best regards.

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    • Hope you get a chance to see it, Chris.
      Yes, Torn Curtain is a very disappointing effort; it’s a good idea with a few nicely done scenes, but it takes too long to get where it’s going. The only reason I mentioned it was the political thriller aspect combined with the characteristic cross-country pursuit, and also a “hiding out among an audience” scene.

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      • I’m liking Torn Curtain a bit more and have almost forgiven Hitch for dumping Herman score. But Julie Andrews is a drawback for me . No chemistry with Newman. Love Lila Kedrova.

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        • There are parts of the film I like too – Kedrova is a draw and quite affecting in her role – and I can live with the score, which isn’t actually bad in itself just different from what we’d come to expect. Again, the film is weak especially in view of what had come before, but it’s still streets ahead of the forgettable and turgid Topaz.

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  4. No doubt about it, its still ‘streets’ ahead of Topaz! In fact after ‘Topaz’ I did not watch any Alfred’s movies thereafter. Best regards.

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      • Yes, they are better than TORN and TOPAZ, but they are far from great. Although they might have been much better if Hitchcock could have gotten bigger stars. For instance, how about Sean Connery and Michael Caine in FRENZY? And how about Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty in FAMILY PLOT?

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        • Yes, the star power is somewhat lacking and I think the films could have benefited from a boost in that respect. However, it’s not the only problem as the tone and even the look of the films seems a little off – not that they are genuinely bad, but they feel weaker and suffer when measured against the director’s earlier work.

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          • I agree with you. FAMILY PLOT has the look of a Universal made-for-TV movie. But then, PSYCHO had the look of Hitchcock’s TV show, and that came out the year after NORTH BY NORTHWEST which had superb photography and design. So, was Hitchcock paying less attention to the details late in his career? Or, was he doing the best he could with the budgets he was getting? Or, was all of “old Hollywood” just slipping by that time?

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            • Psycho did look quite stark and minimalist, but then the films which followed through the 1960s didn’t really stick to that template. So, I don’t know – maybe a combination of all of that you suggested, and then I find almost all 1970s films tend to have a different look to what came before, which might (probably?) be related to the cameras and film stock used at the time.

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    • Indeed, and I can see sympathize entirely. Marnie is the last great Hitchcock movie and I also tend to view Torn Curtain as a kind of cut-off point where, despite its rather obvious weaknesses, there is still a sense of the director’s touch in evidence and what feels like some connection to his body of work as a whole. The remaining films, even though they display points of interest here and there, seem more detached, to me anyway.

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  5. Indeed, I agree fully with your views(very well expressed) above. Incidentally a passable ( nothing memorable) movie The Defector starring Mongomery Clift reminded me of Torn Curtain. Best regards.

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    • I have a vague memory of seeing that film on TV many years ago but I really can’t recall anything beyond Clift and the Cold War setting. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to view it again at some point.

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  6. I just watched it on youtube. It was only up for a couple days. I think it was YouTuber eh44returns who always posts great old chestnuts for 48 hrs.

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    • Hadn’t noticed that, which isn’t all that surprising if it had only been up for a brief time. YT isn’t an ideal viewing experience but there are some real rarities that can be chanced upon, material which can’t be seen any other way and it’s very useful on those occasions.

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  7. Thanks for the review of STATE SECRET. It sounds like a load of fun. Fairbanks Jr. could really pull off this sort of story. What a great cast, and Glynis Johns is a favorite of mine. I need to see this one.

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    • It is a very enjoyable film, well cast and neatly directed. I’d be delighted if it were to get a decent release and be made available to a wider audience.

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