Sidney Gilliat (director)
Network on Air (studio)
22 February 2021 (released)
21 February 2021
This entertaining and gripping thriller is a trifle on the unusual side, what with the action taking place in a Ruritarian Balkan state where American surgeon Douglas Fairbanks Jr. soon regrets having accepted an invite…
Before we head off to the (fictional) state of Vosnia (some of the actors had to learn a specially constructed additional dialogue called Vosnian for the film!) we are in London and it is here where renowned American surgeon Dr. John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) receives a letter while at his breakfast table. Not that this is anything out of the ordinary as he receives many letters but one letter stands out – it has a Vosnian stamp with the face of the country’s leader on it. Intrigued as to why he should receive correspondence from a country he’s never been to and has no connections with, Marlowe opens the envelope and is even more puzzled that the letter informs him that due to his outstanding medical contributions – in particular a specific surgical knowledge that can cure a rare illness – he will be awarded with the ‘Kepler Gold Medal’. Still intrigued but obviously pleased about such an unexpected honour he accepts the invite to Vosnia (despite friends advising him against it) and decides to turn the opportunity into a holiday. Upon arrival he is greeted by a small committee including the Government Minister of Health & Public Services Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) who also happens to be the Minister of State Security. Soon it transpires that Marlowe, via the promise of his honourable award, has in fact been lured to Vosnia to put his acclaimed surgical skills to the test on a patient who suffers from the aforementioned rare illness. After visiting the patient in the clinic Marlowe reluctantly agrees to operate on the frail man and understandably seems somewhat disappointed that the rest of his vacation has already been ‘scheduled’ by his hosts to exact detail.
On the day of the operation all seems to go according to plan – well, initially… but when the anesthetised patient displays breathing problems Marlowe asks for the man’s face covering to be removed so he can strap on an oxygen mask. Baffled by the reluctance of the operating staff to follow his orders Marlowe then notices that one of the assistant surgeons is in fact Colonel Galcon. When Marlowe uncovers the patient’s face it transpires that the man on the operating table is not the man our doctor was supposed to be operating on but the country’s leader: Dictator General Nivo (Walter Rilla)! The penny finally begins to drop and apart from his understandable anger at having been duped into saving the life of a Communist leader things are about to get much worse for Marlowe when shortly after the operation, Nivo dies from a blood-clot in his lungs. Of course, Marlowe is now fully aware that he knows too much and that the chances of him returning to England or to his homeland in the US are practically zilch! Consequently he decides on the only plausible thing, which is doing a runner but for how long can he run in a tightly controlled state without getting caught and killed in a fabricated ‘accident’?
It’s from this point onward that State Secret turns into a chase movie, with danger lurking at every corner. In particular an eager police officer (Anton Diffring in a criminally small part) is hot on Marlowe’s heels – prompting him to sneak away to a theatre performance where he’s soon spotted. Marlowe opts for an escape route which brings him backstage. Enter actress Lisa Robinson (Glynis Johns) who initially tells the intruder to “go away” as she doesn’t want to get caught up in this dangerous game. However, fate reunites them and soon both are on the run. In their despair to get out of the country they even attempt a highly dangerous route which takes them across the breath-taking Dolimites where the nail-biting climax is about to unfold… Kudos must go to Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Krasker.
This 1950 thrill-ride sees established actors in small roles, notably Eric Pohlman as a cable car conductor who initially is unaware that two of his guests are wanted, and in particular the ever reliable Herbert Lom as blackmailing black-market crook Karl Theodor – an inspired scene during which he tries in vain to outsmart Dr. Marlowe during yet another attempt to escape the deadly clutches of Communist Vosnia. Yep, there’s an unexpected twist at the end which we won’t give away here.
Glynis Johns, Jack Hawkins and main man Douglas Fairbanks Jr. all deliver with great competence and we are in reliable hands with director/producer Sidney Gilliat and producer Frank Launder who already had earned respect penning the scripts for Alfred Hitchock’s ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1938) and Carol Reed’s ‘Night Train to Munich’ (1940).
STATE SECRET – based on the novel by Roy Huggins - has just been released in DVD-format and is presented as a brand-new re-master. Bonus Material includes US-Version reel 1, Interview with Forbes Taylor and Jack Hawkins career profile.