Tales of a 1950s movie location hunter

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Italy or Austria? Michael Gilliat tells us the story of his father working for Alexander Korda in the 1950s – and a location challenge.

My father, Leslie Gilliat, devoted his life to films and worked on dozens of British classics over a long career, ranging from the Will Hay films of the 1930s to the St. Trinian’s comedies of the 1950s and 1960s. Working mainly as a producer, Leslie often collaborated with his brother Sidney Gilliat, and Sidney’s partner Frank Launder.

After serving in the army during World War II, Leslie returned to films as a location manager for The Blue Lagoon (1949), set in Fiji, before moving onto Sidney and Frank’s next production, State Secret, a thriller which reflected the duo’s previous screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

In the film – also known as The Great Manhunt – Dr John Marlow (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is an American doctor who is invited to accept a prestigious medical award in the Eastern European state of Vosnia. When he arrives, he discovers he is required to operate on General Niva, the country’s president and dictator, who has been injured in an assassination attempt. Marlowe undertakes the operation, but the general dies. However, State Police Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) wants to suppress news of the leader’s death and replace him with a lookalike in the coming election. Marlowe knows too much and must escape with the help of a local counterfeiter (Herbert Lom) and a half-English female singer (Glynis Johns) on tour in Vosnia. After a hair-raising chase and a perilous mountain crossing, Marlowe is captured, but to give away more would spoil the story!

The story

While Sidney wrote, directed, and produced the film, Leslie was employed as Production Manager. In retirement, he told the tale of the location recce.

“I have happy memories of State Secret. I was called to Alexander Korda’s office. He said ‘I want the film made in Austria because Carol Reed made a fine film out there – The Third Man. You go and see Sir David Cunningham and he will arrange the funds to be available for you in Vienna’”.


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“You did not argue with Korda, but as a back-up I thought it would be wise if I took a bit of Italian money with me, so I could pop across the Brenner Pass into Italy. I was sure it would be easier to work there than in Austria. The country was split into four after the war and, having been in the army myself, I knew what the problems would be between each particular zone.”


Upon arriving in Austria to draw his money, Leslie encountered a problem. He didn’t speak German but knew that Fünfhundert was five hundred, so asked for that, but was refused. With the aid of an interpreter, he learned that the company had a balance of £4 0s 8 1/2d, leaving him with virtually no money. “I was stuck in Vienna with £20 in my pocket and nothing else. I phoned London and asked if they could sort this all out. I spoke to Cyril Coke who was running the office and he said ‘I’ll see what I can do but there are all these restrictions and it takes a long time with the Bank of England to send it out’. I replied somewhat curtly: ‘Well, I shall starve then!’.”

Two days on, there was no word from London. Fortunately, an Austrian film director named Karl Hartl, who was set to make a film at Shepperton Studios later that year, rang Leslie at his hotel and advanced him the money he needed to continue. Relieved, Leslie began his work researching and finding the locations, but, as expected, things did not go according to plan.

“I was quite right about the difficulty of working in Austria. We needed about a dozen different locations in State Secret, like a railway or tram that came across the mountains to the town, a big villa and also some deserted snow slopes because the escape is made from the country on skis. At least that was what was supposed to happen.”

Leslie explored various locations in the divided city, including the British zone and Graz, the capital of the area. He found a suitable villa, but no railway nearby. He found a railway in Innsbruck, but none of the other things. Additionally, he found it difficult to find a hotel, which was an impractical situation for a large film unit that would need to travel all over the country.

“One incident I won’t forget in a hurry was when I went to a place called Hochsölden. I found the chairlift was not working to take me to the top. However, they had a luggage rack there for taking cases up. I asked if I could go up in the tray, and they were rather reluctant”.

“I said, ‘nobody is looking’ and got on the tray. They started the motor and off I went. It took about 25 minutes to get to the top. Now with chairlifts, when they get to the top they automatically go down again, but this was not the case with the tray. At the end, I just swayed about around 1000 feet in the air”. “I could see little figures of people skiing below and the sides of the tray were only four or five inches deep. When I eventually managed to get off, I found it was much too crowded to use as a location, but it was getting dark. I made inquiries to see if I could get down by any other way, but that was not possible. I had to go back down on the tray in the moonlight. It was only about three feet wide and six feet long, so it was pretty frightening.”


At that point, Leslie decided to see if he could have more luck with locations across the border, travelling across the Brenner Pass into Italy with only £100 in his pocket. Nevertheless, he didn’t have to look very far to be convinced that this would be the place to make the film. Leslie headed back to Vienna on his way home. “To do this I had to go into the British zone because you could only enter Vienna from the zone your country had occupied. In fact, there was an American on the train and I said [rather incredulously] ‘are you going to Vienna?’” “He replied, ‘yes’, and I told him he would not be allowed in. His dismissive reply was ‘don’t worry, I will get in okay’. Well, the Russians came on to the train at six in the morning to check passports and he was thrown off the train!”

Afterwards, Leslie returned to England to report all this to Frank and Sidney, but found there were delays. “I think it was because of Fairbanks’ availability, but we had to put the film back from the winter into the summer. So, Sidney changed his script to make the escape over the frontier by mountaineering rather than skiing. Of course, I had to point out that I had not found anything like that, so I explained I would have to go back again, and Sidney said he would come with me.” “We went to Bolzano and then to Trento, and we found everything we wanted. Then went into the mountains to look for the escape sequence. It was all ideal.”

Two budgets

However, there were still hurdles to be overcome. As founder of London Films and owner of British Lion, Alexander Korda was a hugely important and intimidating figure in the British film industry. And he wanted the film made in Austria. Because of this, Leslie decided to prepare two budgets for the meeting with Korda – one for Austria and another for Italy – to illustrate that it would cost three times more to film in Austria. Two or three days later, he was summoned to Korda’s office. “When I entered, he immediately said ‘you are a bloody fool. What do you mean it will cost three times more to film in Austria!’” “I replied ‘we have to move around too much. ‘Nonsense’, he said. ‘You can do it all in Vienna.’ I explained that I could not find the locations there. He then replied: ‘You can’t have looked properly’.”

Leslie was by then a bit exasperated as he’d been all over Austria trying to find suitable places, so he challenged Korda to show him on a map where they could make the film in Austria. He suggested the beautiful city of Klagenfurt. Leslie pointed out that it didn’t meet the film’s needs, which would mean they’d have to move the production elsewhere for trams and an arcade. “I then inquired when he was last in Klagenfurt. I must say he looked sheepish at that point and mumbled ‘1909’. I assured him that it had changed a lot since 1909!”

“In the end, he just said ‘you can make the bloody film in Italy’ and then pushed me out of the office. So, we made the film in Italy!”

State Secret was premiered in 1950. More than 70 years after Leslie left Korda’s office, the film appears regularly on British TV to this day…

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