Overlooked gem, with a startlingly good child performance
I must confess I'm a little surprised by the lackluster rating of 5.1 that this film currently has on IMDb, because it's exactly the kind of movie that deserves reevaluation. Granted, it's no masterpiece. The plot isn't particularly innovative, and the dialog is clunky at times. Perhaps most disturbing of all, since director Clive Donner had been a top editor during the preceding decade, the pacing is too slow. (This kind of movie shouldn't run longer than 85 or 90 minutes.) But it's thoughtful and entertaining. And most importantly, it's an excellent example of the transition that the British film industry was undergoing in the late-1950s. On one hand, its characters are working-class types who feel entrapped by their environment, much like the "Kitchen Sink" dramas that began appearing the following year. Likewise, Donner's interest in youth culture and on-location photography mirrors that of the Free Cinema directors. On the other hand, the moral compass of "The Secret Place" is aligned with the moderate views of Ealing, and poor Belinda Lee is saddled with outdated lines like "you really *must* stop" and "I'd be ever so grateful." (By the way, the gorgeous Lee acquits herself nicely in this rare dramatic role. She was used rather poorly by the Rank Organization.)
What I especially like about "The Secret Place" is its blending of genres. At its most basic level, it's a heist picture. The plot centers around a daring diamond robbery. The second half of the film, however, runs more along the lines of a boys' adventure tale, with young Freddie trying to foil the gang's plans -- not unlike Ealing's "Hue and Cry" (though with far less comedy). Yet the movie also presents us with a vivid and dramatic portrayal of a bombed-out London neighborhood and the interconnected lives of its inhabitants -- much like "It Always Rains on Sunday" and "London Belongs to Me." At heart, this film wants to say something about the bleakness of war-scarred London and the need its younger inhabitants have of escape to a better life. A brief interlude that occurs when Molly and Gerry visit a modern flat they hope to buy with their share of the loot provides subtle but beautiful motivation for their actions.
As the other reviewer points out, most viewers will be interested to see a very young David McCallum in one of his earliest roles, and as I've already mentioned, this movie offers a rare glimpse of Belinda Lee tackling a role that wasn't beneath her. But the real eye-opener is Michael Brooke's superb performance as the adolescent Freddie, whose crush on Molly is exploited cruelly by the gang. Donner's skill with young actors is on full display here: Brooke's depiction of pubescent infatuation with a (slightly) older woman and the heartbreak and loss of innocence that that sort of infatuation can result in is spot-on. Freddie is both precocious and naive -- a combination that's extraordinarily difficult to recreate. It really is one of the best and most overlooked child performances of the decade. It's a shame that Brooke didn't have much of a career afterward. (By the way, IMDb's entry for Brooke apparently confuses him with a much older actor with the same name. Surely, he wasn't born in 1904! However, I know that I've glimpsed him in a couple of other British films from the same period -- "The Mudlark" and "The Long Arm," most notably.)
So if you get a chance to watch this on TV, it's worth your while. (It seems to come on TCM once every year or so.)
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