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Secret Lives (1937)

Main image of Secret Lives (1937)
35mm, black and white, 78 mins
Directed byEdmond T. Gréville
Production CompanyPhoenix Films
Produced byHugh Perceval
ScreenplayBasil Mason, Hugh Perceval, Edmond T. Gréville
Photography byOtto Heller
Music byWalter Goehr

Cast: Brigitte Horney (Lena Schmidt); Neil Hamilton (Lieutenant Pierre de Montmalion); Frederick Lloyd (chief of the French secret service); Raymond Lovell (chief of the German secret service); Charles Carson (Henri); Ivor Barnard (little man with the bald head)

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A German-born Frenchwoman is trained as a spy by the French Secret Service, a job that proves wholly incompatible with her desire for a normal life.

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A stylish spy thriller from French-born expat Edmond T. Gréville (whose best-known British films would be Noose, 1948, and 'Beat' Girl, 1959), Secret Lives traces the four-year career of Lena Schmidt, whose German ancestry proves both a burden and an opportunity when war breaks out in 1914. Spotted and trained by the French Secret Service, she becomes a highly successful spy until the understandably affronted German government takes revenge in the film's tragic conclusion.

It's more of a character piece than a suspense thriller: the precise details of Lena's missions are generally left obscure in favour of a detailed study of her confused and contradictory feelings about being 'rescued' from an internment camp only to be ruthlessly exploited by the French authorities - even to the point of forcing her into a marriage of convenience to prevent the German government from legally requesting her deportation. Her romance with her husband begins after their wedding, triggered by a delightful scene in which newlywed Pierre is so offended by the overly ornate decorations of the hotel suite provided for them that he starts wrenching them off furniture and walls, or smashing them in situ.

But if Pierre's aesthetic sensibility tends towards simplicity, Gréville favours the opposite approach, shooting the film in a floridly baroque style that could be described as Wellesian were it not for the fact that it predates Orson Welles' debut Citizen Kane (US, 1941) by four years. There is scarcely a shot that doesn't feature the intricate interplay of light and shade, faces are frequently adorned with shifting shadowy patterns, and even the most outwardly innocent conversation is imbued with a doom-haunted fatalism. Symbolism abounds: the looting of Lena's father's shop fades out on a shot of flour pouring uselessly onto the floor, the crucifix on the wall of Lena's old bedroom suggests pre-war religious certainties that no longer apply, and the shadow of the German eagle looms over a map of Spain as the German military authorities plot Lena's downfall.

Secret Lives was believed lost for many years, until the BFI's 'Missing Believed Lost' initiative of 1992 turned up a Swiss release print, thankfully complete with the original soundtrack, but with French and German subtitles over the picture. But given that the entire narrative is set against a backdrop of Franco-German rivalry that continues after the end of the war, this addition is strangely appropriate.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Gréville, Edmond T (1906-66)
Lost Then Found