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British actor Stewart Granger had his first success in his native country as an appealing romantic lead during World War II before coming to Hollywood in the early 50s. Under contract to MGM, he built a popular career as a dashing hero in period adventure films. In 1961, the studio assigned him to The Secret Partner, a production of Metro's British branch, where he was reunited with Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, the director and producer of one of Granger's early English successes, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948).
The actor's role in this picture is a far cry from the heroic swashbucklers of Scaramouche (1952), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) and Beau Brummell (1954), but he handles the tense, twisting mystery plot with the skill he often brought to swordplay. Even for blackmail stories, the plot of The Secret Partner gets extremely convoluted. Granger is a London shipping tycoon with a shady past forced to pay hush money to an evil dentist (isn't it time someone programmed a film series dealing with the "evil dentist" sub-sub-genre?). The blackmail brings about the typical financial and familial complications, then takes an even nastier turn when the dentist himself is blackmailed into obtaining the combination to the safe in Granger's office for the purpose of grand theft. The dentist manages to get Granger into his chair, drugs him and "extracts" the information. (Can't you picture it? A whole series of films featuring the common primal-fear scene of a horrifying dentist office visit!) Suspected by Scotland Yard of robbing his own safe, Granger escapes and takes matters into his own hands, leading to a surprise ending.
Granger's estranged wife, who may also be part of any of the plots against him, is played by Israeli actress Haya Harareet. The two almost starred together in a big budget epic a few years earlier. Granger was at the top of the list of actors considered for the multi-award-winner Ben-Hur (1959). Early in pre-production, he was a likely candidate to play the Roman officer Messala, boyhood friend and later deadly rival of the title character. For that role, MGM was leaning strongly toward Kirk Douglas. The lead, of course, eventually went to Charlton Heston, earning him an Academy Award, and Irish actor Stephen Boyd was cast as Messala. The small role of Ben-Hur's romantic interest was originally offered to Granger's then wife, Jean Simmons, whose stature was really rather high for such a minor role. Harareet, relatively unknown outside her native country, was eventually cast. Although the film made the beautiful young actress world famous, she followed it with mostly minor European projects and later married British director Jack Clayton, for whom she wrote the screenplay and acted in Our Mother's House (1967) before retiring from acting. Simmons went on to a substantially beefier role in Elmer Gantry (1960) and put in her time in the sword-and-sandal genre with Spartacus (1960). She and Granger divorced in 1960; the split was devastating to him and, combined with his dissatisfaction over available roles (he once said he couldn't stand a single one of the 60-plus movies he made), he was happy to accept a part back in England and out of the glare of Hollywood fame. He was also delighted to work with Dearden again. The two men had become good friends on Saraband, although apparently Granger and Relph never warmed to each other.
One thing director and star shared was that each had changed his name upon entering the film business to avoid confusion with fellow artists. Granger was actually born James Stewart, but by the late 1930s, when it was obvious someone had already indelibly claimed that moniker, he switched to Stewart Granger. Initially an actor, Basil Dear became a stage manager for director Basil Dean. Because their names looked so similar, Dear added "den" to his last name to distinguish him from his boss. Dearden and producer Relph formed a partnership early on that resulted in 29 films between 1946 and 1970, including several that drew international attention, such as Victim (1961), a groundbreaking film about homosexuality (also involving a blackmail plot though without the evil dentist); Woman of Straw (1964), with Gina Lollobrigida and Sean Connery; and the spy thriller/comedy Masquerade (1965). On his own, Dearden also helmed the big-budget historical action drama Khartoum (1966) with Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier.
Screenwriters David Pursall and Jack Seddon had substantial experience with mystery plots, having co-written a number of entries in the popular Agatha Christie "Miss Marple" series. And of course it would be remiss not to at least mention the long career of the man who plays the evil dentist. Norman Bird made his screen debut in 1954 and worked until 1996, nine years before his death. In addition to several films for Dearden and Relph, his face should be familiar to any fan of British cinema, having turned up in such pictures as The Wrong Box (1966) with Michael Caine, A Dandy in Aspic (1968) with Laurence Harvey, Shadowlands (1993) with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, and the immortal Ooh, You Are Awful (1972). He was also the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the animated The Lord of the Rings (1978).
Director: Basil Dearden
Producer: Michael Relph
Screenplay: David Pursall, Jack Seddon
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Editing: Raymond Poulton
Production Designer: Elliot Scott
Original Music: Philip Green
Cast: Stewart Granger (John Brent), Haya Harareet (Nicole Brent), Bernard Lee (Detective Supt. Hanbury), Hugh Burden (Charles Standish), William Fox (Brinton).
by Rob Nixon